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Admin submits bill to amend current Lands and Titles law

Gov. Lemanu P.S. Mauga
Giving Samoan Affairs authority to refer disputes to court after 6 months

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The prolonged land and matai title disputes — at times lingering for years, even 20 years — has prompted the Lemanu Administration to submit a bill, amending current law, by giving the Secretary of Samoan Affairs the authority to make rules in land and title disputes.

This is according to testimonies by Attorney General Fainu’ulelei Falefatu Alailima-Utu and Secretary of Samoan Affairs, Mauga T. Asuega when they appeared earlier this week before the Senate Samoan Affairs Committee hearing on the bill, chaired by Sen. Muagututi’a Tauoa.

And senators who spoke during the nearly one-hour hearing commended the proposed law, and acknowledged the fact that there are matai titles and land dispute cases that have dragged on for years.

In submitting the Administration bill to the Legislature, Gov. Lemanu P. S. Mauga told Fono leaders that delayed resolutions of a land and title dispute “disrupts the peaceful and orderly administration of family and village affairs.”

“This bill would allow for a case to proceed to the High Court [of American Samoa] if unresolved six months after referral to the Secretary of Samoan Affairs,” the governor wrote, saying that the Administration solicits the support of the Fono “in considering this important legislation.”

At the committee hearing, Fainu’ulelei informed senators that the legislation was the result of discussions and recommendations from the Office of Samoan Affairs pertaining to resolving disputes on lands and matai titles.

He pointed out that the problem and issue faced by Samoan Affairs is that disputes linger for years, and remain unresolved, despite all efforts of Samoan Affairs to resolve them.

He explained that the proposed law would address this long-standing problem, giving the Secretary or the individual acting in the position of Secretary of Samoan Affairs, the authority to refer the matter to the High Court if after six-months, a dispute is not resolved.

The amendment to current law proposed in the bill, adds this new provision: “if after expiration of six months from the date the land or title matter was referred to the Secretary of Samoan Affairs and there is no compliance” with current provision, title — ‘Certificate of irreconcilable dispute’ — the “Secretary of Samoan Affairs or his deputy shall confirm in writing to the Chief Justice or a presiding Justice of the High Court, that the parties have failed to comply and/ or to complete the requirement of subsection (a) (1), therefore, the case shall be and is hereby forwarded to the land and Titles Division of the High Court for adjudication of the said land and title claim(s)” in accordance with local law.

Samoa News notes that subsection (a) (1) provision, states: That on at least 2 occasions, the party have appeared personally before him — the Secretary of Samoan Affairs — and 2 persons designated by him, without an attorney or counsel, and that an attempt was made to resolve the controversy.

Another amendment proposed in the Administration bill, allows the Secretary of Samoan Affairs to adopt rules — in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Acts — for the conduct of hearings, and establish fees for matters brought before the Secretary of Samoan Affairs.

And the fees collected shall be earmarked for use by the Office of Samoan Affairs.

During the committee hearing, Fainu’ulelei said that such fees — as proposed in the bill — would allow Samoan Affairs to purchase equipment, such as audio machines and cameras to record land and title proceedings conducted by Samoan Affairs.

He explained that one of problems is that when Samoan Affairs writes to the High Court, outlining in writing and other documents the outcome of proceedings, the individuals involved in land and titles would dispute Samoan Affairs’ accounts of the proceeding; and tells the court a different story.

Therefore, said Fainu’ulelei, if there is a record of an audio/ video recording as to what occurred, it would provide proof of the actual Samoan Affairs proceedings for submission to court.

According to the Attorney General, the annual budget for Samoan Affairs provides funding for personnel services, but not equipment/ supplies.

Mauga concurred with Fainu’ulelei’s statement on the need of recording equipment for all proceedings conducted by Samoa Affairs, in order to provide additional record of proof for the court. He said Samoan Affairs would then be able to provide for the court the written record as well as video recording.

He recalled for the committee current law, which requires Samoan Affairs meet two-times with families involved in a dispute. And after the two meetings, and the disputes are not resolved, that the matter is sent back to the High Court — but current law does not provide a timeframe of how long a dispute remains with Samoan Affairs. And the dispute could remain for years with Samoan Affairs.

He said that another issue that has impeded on the duties and responsibilities of Samoan Affairs, pertaining to resolving disputes is that there are family leaders who have moved off-island and have lived there for a long time, therefore delaying the process.

Sen. Fai’ivae Iuli Godinet commended the Administration bill, saying that the proposed law would assist Samoan Affairs resolve land and title disputes, some of which have remained unresolved for years. He said the bill — if enacted into law — would be a starting point moving forward.

The Fofo senator also supports fees as proposed in the bill, so that Samoan Affairs is equipped with the proper equipment to record proceedings.

Sen. Satele Lili’o Aliita’i, a former High Court Associate Judge, also supports the bill, saying that there are matai titles vacant for 10 to 20 years over unsolved disputes between families. And this affects and disrupts administration of family, including within the village council.

There was also support from other senators who spoke during the hearing, including Sen. Tuiagamoa Tava’i — a former deputy secretary of Samoan Affairs — who agreed with Mauga’s statement regarding the many years that disputes go through the legal process.

The bill went through another committee hearing yesterday and Samoa News will report in future edition on this hearing as well as the outcome of a Senate decision on the proposed law.

(Read story elsewhere in this issue on an alternate proposal brought up by two senators.)