Kiribati court rules suspended Australian judge cannot be deported

By Thomson Reuters Apr 15, 2024 | 9:09 PM

By Kirsty Needham

(Reuters) – A Kiribati court has ruled that a High Court judge in the Pacific Island nation who has been suspended by the president cannot be deported to Australia where he was born until parliament considers the findings of a tribunal examining a complaint against him.

The attempted deportation two years ago of David Lambourne, a judge who is married to Kiribati’s opposition party leader, sparked a judicial crisis in the Pacific Island nation in a case closely watched by the United Nations and international legal groups.

A resident of Kiribati for 30 years, Lambourne has been living there without a visa or salary since 2022 when President Taneti Maamau suspended him. Maamau then suspended all three Court of Appeal judges and the chief justice after they ruled Lambourne should not be deported.

Kiribati will hold national elections this year, and Lambourne appeared in court last month seeking to have his suspension overturned.

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

In his Tuesday ruling, High Court Commissioner Aomoro Amten said that although Lambourne’s suspension is valid, it was unconstitutional to withhold his salary, and he must not be deported until parliament considers the outcome of a tribunal that is yet to deliver a report.

“He is still a judge but cannot work. Until its final disposal by the Maneaba, the Applicant must not be forced to leave Kiribati, even if the relevant authority declines to issue him a visa,” the judgement read.

Lambourne’s lawyers had argued in court that none of the allegations made against him – including a disputed claim he took too long to make judgements – justified the president forming a tribunal to investigate his removal from office.

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 series of suspensions of judges, which left Kiribati without a functioning High Court or Court of Appeal to act as a check on the power of parliament.

Kiribati’s parliament sits for a final session this month, before dissolving in May ahead of national elections.

The Kiribati president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)