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Civil claim backfires

This blog post was written months earlier and was meant to mark the launching and commencement of our regular toast of alternative news, information and guidance on how to make the best use of our government apparatuses, and contribute to a robust system of justice. Our goal, as you may have noticed, is to pursue truth and restore justice in our homes, community, island, nation and the world at large because we believe truth is absolute and must be defended at all costs. Secondly, we hope that we can awaken the spirit of consciousness within you and empower you to stand up for freedom and truth— both priceless gifts from above.

Rationale The courts have a duty spelt by the Constitution to uphold our rights as citizens of the country. But not all disputes are handled by the courts, or can/should be handled at that level. The reasons are obvious. The costs of ligation in our modern courts are exorbitant— not to mention lawyer fees, particularly for many low-income earners. As such, anyone who wishes to pursue a case in court to right any wrong committed against them, must ensure all possible avenues have been explored, including our very own means of dispute resolution, at the local village level. There is a chance that one might be barking up the wrong tree, or worse, hopping on the bandwagon for some selfish gain. This piece is about a case that started out as a civil claim for damage to property in Santo’s Big Bay bush, but has backfired as a criminal complaint against all the individuals who may yet discover that they had been hoodwinked and/or seriously misled by the lure of money.

Brief Background Sometimes in April 2017, police were called upon to investigate a string of claims against an environmental conservationist in the Big Bay area, Santo. The allegations against the individual were ultimately that he had damaged properties belonging to a certain group of professed landowners and users of the area in the process of trying to construct a pathway through the woods to his ‘sacred garden’. The road was contracted to Stephen Croucher of Melcoffee Sawmill who apparently was given quite clear instructions about what he could or could not do while constructing the 3km road.

There was to be no unnecessary damage to trees, let alone fruit trees and the general flora and fauna. Great care was to be taken to ensure the forest remained intact as far as possible. As it turned out, police and private investigators have since uncovered a trail of evidences that speak to the complete opposite of what might be the subject of that original civil case. As a result a counter-claim is now being pursued as a criminal matter against the would-be-plaintiffs-turned defendants.

The Constitution Relevant Sections of the Vanuatu Constitution include Article 2(b), which stipulates:

“everyone is presumed innocent until a court establishes his guilt according to law…”

And in Article 6(1) Enforcement of fundamental rights:

(1) Anyone who considers that any of the rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution has been, is being or is likely to be infringed may, independently of any other possible legal remedy, apply to the Supreme Court to enforce that right. (2) The Supreme Court may make such orders, issue such writs and give such directions, including the payment of compensation, as it considers appropriate to enforce the right.

Furthermore, under Article 7, Fundamental duties:

Every person has the following fundamental duties to himself and his descendants and to others – (a) to respect and to act in the spirit of the Constitution; (d) to protect the Republic of Vanuatu and to safeguard the national wealth, resources and environment in the interests of the present generation and of future generations;

In respect of the civil claim, which appears to be still halfway through due judicial process, the onus will be on the claimants to successfully make out their claims before the courts. It remains to be seen how far this can go but in criminal matters ignorance of the law is not a defence.

Backfire All defendants face two main charges of false statements, contrary to Section 76 of the Vanuatu Penal Code and criminal defamation contrary to Section 120 of the same Act. Both offences carry maximum penalties of three years if convicted. It is noteworthy that the original civil claim only had four claimants. The criminal case now before the courts alleges offences against more than 20 individuals of the Big Bay bush who may yet come to regret their action. But the case reflects quite poorly on ni-Vanuatu involved who may have been duped into thinking that a claim against a ‘white millionaire’ might be the best route to making some quick easy bucks on the side.

Agriculture field Assistants on Santo have since been to Big Bay to quantify the amount of ‘damage’ caused as a result of the road construction. This was purely for compensatory purposes if the claims could be proven. As it has turned out the defendants will struggle to prove this claim. Two follow-up assessments confirmed that there was no damage as claimed. This happened because of C4J’s intervention. Not only that it may yet transpire that some imposter agriculture ‘field assistants’ did the survey.

Alternatives? The best approach to matters of this nature, one would think, would have been to sort the matter out at the very basic level with the chief(s) of the area instead of running straight to courts. Apparently the would-be respondent was adopted into a prominent clan in Big Bay. He has lived in the area for close to 10 years.

In the eyes of the law, there can be no two ways about it. Ultimately one will have to end up a winner or a loser. There is no middle ground in the modern courts unlike in most of our local communal systems where disputes are often settled by consensus.

Better still, instead of trying to pursue something one might well know to be bordering on falsehood, how about seeking further information to ascertain the veracity and truthfulness of a complaint?

To Make the Alternative Happen More must be done by the Government and line agencies such as provincial authorities to work in closer consultation with the local level authorities such as the area councils to ensure people are better aware of their rights and how they can go about remedying them in the event they are breached. But bringing matters before the courts in this context will always be an expensive exercise for any ordinary ni-Vanuatu. Besides, money spent on lawyers and court processes would be far better spent on family and community needs.

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