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Lawyer to sue Samoa Judge and Attorney General for $WST 2million

13 October 2016

By Nick Butcher

In a David versus Goliath legal situation, an Auckland-based lawyer is suing a Samoa Court of Appeal Judge and the Attorney-General in Samoa because of hurt and humiliation she says they inflicted on her.

WST $2million is the equivalent to over NZ $1million.

Olinda Woodroffe has been embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the justice sector in her birth country of Samoa.

In the island nation where she has practised law for 21-years, she holds the High Chief Ali'I title, Leulua'ialii.

She has also practised law in New Zealand since 1989 after graduating with an LLB from the University of Auckland and she has an office in the city.

Ms Woodroffe's legal action also includes suing the Samoa Law Society after her practising certificate was terminated without warning for what she says were dubious reasons.

The legal basis around the decision was because the Samoa Law Society questioned whether Ms Woodroffe's office and practising certificate in Samoa complied with the Lawyers and Legal Practice Act 2014 which replaced the 1976 legislation, The Law Practitioners Act.

But Ms Woodroffe's latest legal battle is with the Samoa Court of Appeal Judge, Justice Robert Lloyd Fisher, who is a New Zealander, and the Attorney-General.

The Attorney-General who was appointed this year is New Zealand-based Samoan senior lawyer, Lemalu Hermann Reztlaff.

The grievance is based around Ms Woodroffe's claim about the hearing she was given by Justice Fisher in the Court and she is suing for exemplary and general damages for hurt and humiliation.

What led to the claims of hurt and humiliation?

All legal roads lead back to a 2003 case where Olinda Woodroffe was representing an elderly Samoan woman in relation to land that she owned.

The elderly woman's land which was situated in a prime commercial area was eventually sold to the wife of the island nation's former Attorney-General.

That outcome was to have been challenged in the Samoa Court of Appeal in February this year but Ms Woodroffe says Justice Fisher told her that her practising certificate had been terminated by the Samoa Law Society.

However her practising certificate has since been reinstated, although it is a restricted certificate only, meaning that she must practise law under the supervision of a lawyer who holds an unrestricted certificate.

But she says that isn't enough to stop her backing down from suing Justice Fisher and the Attorney-General.

She says on the day she was to appeal the land sale decision, the Samoa Law Society told the Court of Appeal Judge that day [10 February] that her office in Samoa was always locked, questioning whether she was actually practising law in Samoa.

"The Law Society president filed an affidavit saying no-one is looking after my office because the gate is locked, but my office is open far more than most of the local lawyers there who are out playing golf half the time.

She claims that the Court accepted the Samoa Law Society's opinion as fact and she was not given the opportunity to respond to the accusation.

Eventually she says the Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal did issue a decision in relation to her client's land which went in her favour but Ms Woodroffe says the elderly woman unfortunately died about two days before it was made in August.

"It's despicable that she had to wait 13 years for a decision and then died before she could benefit from getting her land back," she says.

A petition to change the Lawyers and Legal Practice Act 2014

In further developments, Ms Woodroffe has 6,970 written signatures from Samoan people living in New Zealand, Australia and the United States of America.

The petition is calling for the 2014 Act to be scrapped and rewritten, saying it is unconstitutional.

Ms Woodroffe says this is because it says a Samoan citizen living abroad must practise under supervision of a lawyer with an unrestricted practising certificate – yet after the Act changed in 2014, she was considered a resident and had an unrestricted practising certificate up until February this year when that status was suddenly revoked.

"My interpretation is the Act is also discriminative towards Samoan people who live outside Samoa because it basically says they have to travel to Samoa and select a lawyer there to act for them if they have a legal issue in Samoa," she says.

Ms Woodroffe has written letters to the Prime Minister of Samoa about the situation, pointing out that she is a resident lawyer, not a non-resident lawyer.

"Section 2 of the Lawyers and Legal Practice Act 2014 defines a 'non-resident lawyer' as a lawyer enrolled on the temporary roll. I have never enrolled on the temporary roll. I held an unrestricted practising certificate for over 20-years. I am a citizen of Samoa and remain a citizen of Samoa," she says.

Does the Attorney-General have a conflict of interest?

In her letter to the Prime Minister, Olinda Woodroffe accuses Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff of having a conflict of interest.

"He is a member of the Samoa Law Society and party to the law suit I have taken against the Society," she says.

Ms Woodroffe has also met with the Prime Minister of Samoa in person over the past month to discuss her ongoing legal stoush.

Back to the suing of Justice Fisher and the Attorney-General

"It was on call over last Friday in Samoa at the Supreme Court and I was there. A strike-out motion was filed on behalf of Justice Fisher claiming judicial immunity by the Attorney-General," she says.

But Ms Woodroffe isn't giving up without a further challenge.

"There's no way I'm giving in to this. I'm not backing off as this is typical of how things work in Samoa when they don't like something especially from a female lawyer. I will take this all the way to the Human Rights Council in Geneva if I have to," she says.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019