Kiribati parliament votes to remove Australian-born high court judge

By Thomson Reuters Apr 25, 2024 | 10:23 PM

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Kiribati’s parliament has voted to remove Australian-born High Court Judge David Lambourne, who said on Friday the move was politically motivated and an attack on the independence of the Pacific Island nation’s judiciary.

The parliament voted to accept the recommendation of a special tribunal to remove Lambourne for misbehaviour.

An attempt to deport Lambourne, a judge who is married to Kiribati’s opposition party leader, sparked a judicial crisis two years ago in the remote atoll nation in a case closely watched by the United Nations and international legal groups.

In a statement on Friday, Lambourne said he was saddened that the parliament had voted to advise the president he should be removed from office as a judge.

“This has been a process motivated not by a desire to do right by the Constitution, but by politics, and the fabric of our democracy has been weakened as a result,” he said.

“Despite no complaint ever having been made to the Chief Justice about my conduct, or the performance of my judicial functions, the [President] established a Tribunal to investigate me based on the flimsiest of allegations raised by the Chair of his own political party,” he added.

The tribunal report said Lambourne delayed delivery of written reasons in a judgement in a case during an election period. Lambourne had argued the delay was because he was stranded outside Kiribati due to COVID-19 border closures.

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 in a failed bid to have his suspension overturned.

The attempt to deport Lambourne in August 2022 failed when a Fiji Airlines pilot refused to accept Lambourne on the plane against his will.

The High Court ruled earlier this month that Lambourne must not be deported until parliament considers the outcome of a special tribunal.

Lambourne said on Friday he was not given a fair hearing by the tribunal.

“There has been a concerted attack on the independence of the Judiciary in Kiribati by the [president] and the Executive over the past 2 years.”

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

Kiribati’s parliament is sitting for its final session this month, before dissolving in May ahead of national elections.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)