The court, comprising of Chief Justice of Solomon Islands Sir Albert Palmer, serving judge of the National & Supreme Court of PNG Justice Nicholas Kirriwom, and former Chief Justice of the Kingdom of Tonga Justice Michael Scott, sat to hear an appeal by the Nauruan director of public prosecutions against two findings by Justice G Muecke of the Supreme Court of Nauru.
In 2018 Justice Muecke had ruled to “Stay” permanently the trial against the “Nauru 19” on charges including riot and unlawful assembly in 2015. He also ordered that legal representatives be assigned to the defendants and that the Republic of Nauru pay them almost a quarter of a million dollars for their legal defence.
The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and set aside the orders of Justice Muecke, remitting the matter to the chief justice for further directions, and ordering that each party bear their own costs of the appeal.
In a unanimous decision, the court found that Justice Muecke’s decision to declare amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act to be “wholly void” (wrong). Their Honours observed, “It need hardly be stated that courts should exercise great caution before trespassing upon the line which, in a fully functioning democracy, divides the legislature from the judiciary.”
The Court also clarified Article 10 of the Constitution of Nauru with respect to the assignment of legal representation of indigent persons, stating, “There is ample authority for the proposition that an indigent accused who is entitled to legal aid does not have the right to choose counsel assigned to represent him. The refusal of the grant of such a right cannot therefore of itself render a trial unfair.”
Minister of Justice David Adeang said the first sitting of the court was historic and highlighted the great strides Nauru has made in creating an accountable and high-quality justice system, something the Waqa Government made a priority when it took office in 2013.
The court’s judgement itself echoed these thoughts, observing, “It is important to begin with the clear understanding that the termination of the agreement with the High Court of Australia and its replacement by a wholly Nauruan Court of Appeal marks the beginning of a new chapter in the legal order of Nauru.”