Suspended Australian judge facing deportation from Kiribati in court on Tuesday

By Thomson Reuters Mar 24, 2024 | 11:59 PM

By Kirsty Needham

(Reuters) – An Australian-born High Court judge whose aborted deportation two years ago from Kiribati sparked a judicial crisis in the Pacific Islands nation will appear in court on Tuesday, in a case closely watched by the United Nations and international legal groups.

David Lambourne, who has lived in Kiribati for 30 years and is married to Opposition leader Tessie Lambourne, was issued an interim visa in January to stay in the country until a judgement in his case, to be heard this week, court documents show. If he loses the case, the government has said he should be deported.

Lambourne has been living in Kiribati without legal status or salary since 2022 when President Taneti Maamau suspended him, and then suspended all three Court of Appeal judges and the chief justice after they ruled Lambourne should not be deported.

One attempt at deportation during legal proceedings in August 2022 failed when a Fiji Airlines pilot refused to accept Lambourne on the plane against his will.

In a letter to Kiribati in September 2023, Margaret Satterthwaite, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said she was “seriously alarmed” at the suspensions, which left Kiribati without a functioning High Court or Court of Appeal to act as a check on the power of parliament.

The letter also raised concerns that a special tribunal formed by the president to investigate Lambourne is headed by a lay magistrate with no formal legal qualifications, saying his treatment could breach human rights standards.

Lambourne had lodged two High Court applications to challenge his deportation and suspension, but there was no judge to hear them until a commissioner was appointed in August.

Kiribati’s High Court will hear Lambourne’s applications on Tuesday, a court official confirmed to Reuters.

Court submissions show Lambourne’s legal team claims Maamau breached the constitution by suspending him from office without pay in 2022, and that the president’s appointment of two tribunals in 2022 and last year to investigate removing him from the High Court are invalid.

Lawyers for Maamau have responed by saying the president is not required to assess the allegations against a judge before forming a tribunal to investigate removing them. There is also no requirement for the tribunal members to be legally trained, they argue in court submissions.

Kiribati’s parliament sits for a final session in May before national elections.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)