Face to Face with The Hon. Sir Albert Rocky Palmer CBE, Chief Justice of the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands are named after the biblical figure, King Solomon, who is perhaps best known for his wise judgement.

It is perhaps fitting that the cover story for this issue of Hong Kong Lawyer focuses on a key figure of the Solomon Islands’ judiciary, the Hon. Sir Albert Rocky Palmer CBE, Chief Justice of the Solomon Islands.

Between Asia and Oceania

It may seem far away to lawyers in Asia, but Chief Justice Palmer suggests that lawyers in the region can help to build a bridge between the Solomon Islands (and other countries in Oceania) and key Eastern Asian economies like Hong Kong and China.

“For a start, by inviting to, and facilitating more participation and involvement in LAWASIA Conferences and other similar conferences, meetings, workshops and seminars held and convened in Hong Kong or other jurisdictions,” suggested Chief Justice Palmer.

“There has to be a connecting or coming together for any meaningful exchange and interchange, sharing and dialogue to take place, and ultimately empowerment through shared knowledge, skills, experiences and ideas.”

Countries in Oceania should not only be encouraged to attend but, in many instances, will also need assistance to participate. Those from smaller jurisdictions, including the Solomon Islands, may not always have the resources to join these events.

“They may require some form of funding assistance to enable young and upcoming lawyers to be able to attend. There is so much that such smaller jurisdictions in Oceania can receive and take from such interactions as well as learning from older, mature and more developed jurisdictions in Asia, including the high-end economies of Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India etc.,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

He suggests that perhaps some form of fund could be set up for such a purpose. In turn, Chief Justice Palmer would like to see the lawyers and the Courts of the Solomon Islands play a more important role in the South Pacific and Asia Pacific region.

He hopes they will do so by becoming more involved either as members of committees in regional and international organisations, serving in legal and judicial institutions, and or being involved in one capacity or another in those jurisdictions.

“This will provide more exposure, a broader mix of experiences and opportunities for learning and shared knowledge, as well as add to the development of the law in those jurisdictions,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

Meanwhile, the Solomon Islands is doing its best to boost the legal profession in its territory. Chief Justice Palmer says a new Legal Profession Bill is in its final consultative stages before being presented to parliament.

“This has undergone numerous consultations and should be ready for inclusion in the New Year’s sitting of parliament. Once enacted it will replace the current Legal Practitioners Act (Cap. 16), enacted in 1987,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

“It will transform the current setup of the legal profession providing more clarity, control and supervision of legal practitioners including the setup of a Legal Profession Authority, the set up of the Solomon Islands Law Society and requiring more accountability and responsibility for trust funds.”

Solomon Developments

He is excited by the completion of the Coral Sea Cable System linking Port Moresby, Honiara and Sydney by a submarine cable. Chief Justice Palmer believes this will revolutionise ICT services for the country and open up not only opportunities for expansion and growth in the digital and electronic economy, but also raise new issues relating to cybercrime, and challenges associated with such expansion.

“For the courts and the legal profession, the completion of the undersea cable will be timely as we seek to embark on introducing e-filing in the not-too-distant future,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

Another development that he has seen in the Solomons is the national elections of April 2019. The High Court was faced with the challenge of disposing of 28 election petitions. There are 50 seats and so more than half were subject to a petition, the highest ever recorded within a 12 months period from date of filing.

“The election petitions were managed by myself as judge administrator dealing with all pre-trial issues and managing all the cases until they were ready for trial before being allocated to the seven judges to

dispose of. Two petitions were dismissed on procedural grounds, two withdrawn, and another two recently heard and dismissed,” he said.

“The rest are being allocated hearing dates between now and May 2020, with each judge being allocated about three election petitions to complete. These have been given priority in listings and hearings over other cases.”

Chief Justice Palmer says the main grounds in the petitions have been corrupt and illegal practices. While this has been a challenge, so far the carriage and conduct of those petitions has been managed responsibly and well.

Challenges

But that’s hardly the biggest hurdle Chief Justice Palmer has faced in his professional capacity.

“The greatest challenge has been the effective and efficient management of the five courts in the country in the midst of limited resources, including challenging human resource issues, limited funding and support services for judicial officers and court staff and ensuring the regular maintenance and availability of limited court facilities and equipment to enable the courts in the country to fulfil their mandated functions,” he said.

“For instance, for many years court sessions were held in old, run-down, dilapidated buildings where basic utilities were not available and or were provided in a haphazard manner. Some buildings, though already condemned, continued to be used as there was little alternative and court staff and officials had to make do with what was available.”

The Solomon Islands is a constitutional democracy where the constitution is supreme. Parliament is unicameral, it makes laws, the executive implements the law and the court’s role is to interpret the law. Its legal system is based on the common law system.

There are five courts: at the apex is the Court of Appeal; the High Court being a court with unlimited original jurisdiction to hear and determine any civil or criminal proceedings under any law and such other jurisdiction and powers as may be conferred on it by the constitution or Parliament; the Magistrates’ Court, a court with summary and limited jurisdiction; and at the lower end, the Customary Land Appeal Court and Local Court, which both have jurisdiction to hear and determine disputes in customary law.

The Chief Justice, or Chief Justice Palmer in this case, is responsible for the work of the courts in the country, apart from judicial duties and functions, the hearing of criminal and civil matters and exercising supervisory and management roles and duties as head of the judiciary pursuant to the constitution.

“The country is blessed with a robust private bar and legal profession and judiciary,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

He is also proud of the fact that at the height of the ethnic tensions in 1999-2000, when the other two arms of government failed, the judiciary was the only arm that remained firm and did not falter.

As for challenges, Chief Justice Palmer admits getting the government to respond timely and appropriately to the needs of the court, judicial officers and court staff at times can be very slow and frustrating.

“Without donor assistance and participation, especially from Australia and New Zealand, things could have been worse,” he acknowledged.

Kiwi Beginnings

His ties with New Zealand date back to his student days. A native of the Solomon Islands, Chief Justice Palmer graduated with a law degree from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand in 1985, and earlier a BA degree majoring in economics in 1982.

“I was encouraged by my grandfather when I was still in primary school to pick up law studies and so when the opportunity came through a scholarship offered under a Bilateral Aid Programme sponsorship by the New Zealand government in 1978, as part of its independence gift to Solomon Islands, I decided to take up law studies,” he recalled.

After graduating from law school in 1985, he spent a year doing attachment work in various legal offices in Wellington; the Police Legal Section, the Crown Law Office, and Chapman Tripp Sheffield Young in 1986.

“I returned home and commenced work as a senior magistrate in the Magistrates’ Court in 1987. I also did some work with the Registrar-General’s Office, doing land registration, business names registration, company, patents and trademarks, including deceased’s estates for a year,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

He then re-joined the magistracy in 1989 and was appointed a principal magistrate.

“I continued working until 1992 when I was appointed to the High Court as a judge. In 2004, I was appointed chief justice when the chief justice then, Sir John Muria decided to take up an overseas posting,” said Chief Justice Palmer. “Administering justice according to law has been the prime motivating factor in my career.”

Given his long years in the system, Chief Justice Palmer has good judgement on what makes a good judge.

“He should be a good decision maker, able to make decisions quickly and on the spot when required but also be able to analyse and deliver well-reasoned and considered judgements based on the law and facts before him. He should be patient and understanding, a good listener, but firm and decisive when the need arises,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

He adds that a good and solid grounding in the law, practice and procedure is an advantage when it comes to making appropriate and applicable decisions.

“While a judge is primarily a decision maker, he is also a teacher on the law and should be able to write good judgments that are clear, succinct and can be understood by the ordinary man in the street. The law is not only for the parties involved but also to be read by others,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

He praised the media in the Solomon Islands for its good coverage on an almost daily basis of court happenings and decisions and so providing an excellent

opportunity to educate and inform the public of legal and judicial processes. He believes good judges can also help both the people and media demystify the complicated workings of the law.

“These systems and processes can be quite complex and difficult to fathom and so one of the qualities of a judge is in being able to demystify the law so that it is readily understood across the nation, in particular such basic concepts like fairness, impartiality, natural justice and equality before the law,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

Inspirations

Through the tough work, he says the one constant that has helped him pull through has been the teachings of Christianity. But there also been other inspirations besides the divine.

“In terms of individuals, these have come at certain stages and points in my life and given encouragement and inspiration. My late grandfather encouraged me to study hard. My teachers and headmaster at primary school said similar things. One of my teachers at grade five gave a definition of an educated person, as ‘a person who knows something about everything and everything about something’. One of my teachers at Secondary School also encouraged me to ‘aim higher’,” he said.

He also credits plenty of colleagues, both locals and expatriates that have showed unwavering commitment and dedication to the administration of the rule of law and been outstanding role models and mentors.

“Some of these have included, Sir Gordon Ward (retired), the late Lord Slynn of Hadley, late Justice Bruce MacPherson, Justice Glen Williams (retired); Judge Roger Coventry (retired); late Sir Mari Kapi (former Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea), Sir Frank Kabui GCMG, CSI, OBE, Justice Edwin Goldsbrough and others,” said Chief Justice Palmer.

And just like them, he aspires to let his actions speak for him.

“One of the mottos I have tried to put into practice is, to say less and do more, that is, to let your actions do the talking for you,” he said.