Kiribati govt labels NZ judges ‘very biased’ over Lambourne case

Kiribati High Court Justice David Lambourne, right, pictured in 2019 with Sir John Baptist Muri, a former chief justice of the High Court of Kiribati. PHOTO: Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute

Three New Zealand judges have been branded “very biased” by the Kiribati government, after a dramatic attempt to deport a fellow judge failed.

In July, Kiribati suspended Judge Bill Hastings​, a New Zealand judge appointed as chief judge of Kiribati’s High Court, after Hastings ruled in favour of another High Court judge, David Lambourne​, who the government had refused to allow back into the country.

The government then attempted to deport Lambourne, as it was appealing the ruling, and claimed the judge was a risk to national security.

But Hastings’ ruling was on August 26 upheld by Kiribati’s Court of Appeal, which is staffed by three retired New Zealand judges. The court also ordered the government withdraw deportation orders placed on Australian-born Lambourne.

In their ruling, the appeal judges Peter Blanchard​, Rodney Hansen​, QC, and Paul Heath​, said Hastings was right to determine that Lambourne’s 2018 appointment as a judge was not time-limited.

The government had in 2021 required Lambourne to sign a three-year contract in order to re-enter the country. Lambourne has been a resident of Kiribati since 1995.

The judges ruled Lambourne’s passport should be returned to him, and he should be released from bail conditions, as the two deportation notices served on him were invalid.

Before the appeal could be heard on August 11, Kiribati officials attempted to abandon the court case and deport Lambourne. The judge was taken to the airport and, despite an urgent court ruling ordering the deportation be stopped, officials attempted to board him on a plane.

The airline staff refused to accept Lambourne on the plane, and he was detained in a motel for a day.

At the hearing, Kiribati’s lawyer described Hastings’ ruling as a “judicial coup” intended to “reduce the power” of the government, according to the judgement.

The judges said the lawyer indicated they would be deemed “complicit” in the claimed coup, and could be similarly suspended, if they did not overturn the ruling.

“[The] attempt to characterise the behaviour of the two High Court judges as fraudulent in relation to the proceedings is quite hopeless and we reject it,” the ruling said.

Despite the court finding, both Lambourne and Hastings remain suspended, after the government earlier in the year set up tribunals to investigate them for unspecified allegations of “serious misconduct”.