Kiribati govt suspends all Court of Appeal judges

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

Kiribati’s government has dramatically escalated its campaign against the judiciary reports the ABC, suspending the country’s three remaining senior judges after they blocked the deportation of High Court justice and Australian citizen David Lambourne.

The decision effectively leaves Kiribati without any functioning high-level courts, deepening its legal and constitutional crisis.

The office of Kiribati President Taneti Maamau responded when the Kiribati Court of Appeal — which is staffed by three retired New Zealand judges — blocked its move to deport Lambourne, labelling the government’s actions unconstitutional.

The Kiribati government had previously tried — unsuccessfully — to force Lambourne onto a plane and out of the country.

Last month, the Court of Appeal quashed the deportation order and ordered the government to reinstate him.

It also dismissed Kiribati’s argument that Lambourne was a security risk, calling it “far-fetched”, and directed that he be issued a new visa to allow him to stay in the country.

But now Maamau has moved to immediately suspend the three Court of Appeal justices who made that ruling — Paul Heath, Peter Blanchard and Rodney Hansen.

All three men are retired senior New Zealand judges and distinguished jurists. They have been referred to a tribunal set up by Kiribati’s government to determine whether they should stay in office, although how this will tribunal will function and who will sit on it is not yet clear.

While Lambourne still remains in Kiribati, he has not yet been issued a new visa permitting him to stay in the country, despite the orders issued by the Court of Appeal.

The dispute has its roots in a longstanding disagreement over tenure, but has stoked broader concerns about the rule of law and independence of the judiciary in Kiribati.

Legal groups in Australia — as well as a UN Special Rapporteur — have repeatedly criticised Kiribati’s actions, saying the government has made a series of moves to undermine judicial independence and interfere with judges’ security of tenure.