The senior courts in Papua New Guinea have a rather impressive record of not doing the bidding of the government of the day.
There was another example of this just a matter of days ago when three judges sitting as a Supreme Court bench dismissed all orders preventing anti-corruption officers from investigating whether the Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, and the Finance Minister, James Marape, have a case over authorising allegedly fraudulent payments to a legal firm.
Mr O'Neill's initial reaction was to 'welcome' the decision going against him and praise the court for its impartiality. 'This is another indication the judiciary in Papua New Guinea is vibrant and independent in its decision making,' he said.
However, within a matter of days, O'Neill launched even more legal action to stop the anti-corruption police interviewing him.
The ABC's Eric Tlozek reported that Mr O'Neill's lawyers had sought leave to make a further application under the so-called 'slip rule' alleging the three judges on the Supreme Court bench made a 'misapprehension of law'. His lawyers had listed 'six grounds for the previous ruling to be set aside, including that the court failed to accord natural justice to parties by not giving them the opportunity to make submissions on the grounds used by the Supreme Court to dismiss the appeal.'
This appears to be the PNG way these days. Use lawyers to tangle issues up in seemingly endless disputation so that little ever gets resolved.
It is now two-and-a-half years since a case of alleged corruption began against the head of one of Papua New Guinea's biggest legal firms, Paul Paraka of Paul Paraka Lawyers. In 2013, Paul Paraka was arrested and charged with 18 counts of receiving about AUS$30 million in allegedly fraudulent payments from the PNG Finance Department for legal work his firm claimed it had performed for the PNG Government.
The following year he was hit with another 32 charges of conspiracy to defraud, money laundering and misappropriation.
Paraka contests the charges and is still out on bail. In fact, he is now claiming even many more millions from the PNG Government in interest charges for money he says his firm is still owed. Lawrence Stephens, chairman of Transparency International PNG, says the bills for legal work arose out of what was touted to be fee-free.
'Step One,' he says, 'lawyers offering pro-bono services and sending lawyers out into jails around the country to assist people. This is portrayed as pro-bono support – work the Public Solicitor should be doing anyway. But it's said that these lawyers are helping out. These lawyers have to fill in their time sheets which are then sent back to headquarters. Headquarters then puts the time sheets together and presents them to the Government asking for payment for the alleged pro-bono work. So out the door goes multiple millions in what was dressed up as a gift to PNG.'
An indication of just how complicated the Paraka matter has become are two other related cases that the Supreme Court ruled on in February. This was all to do with whether the two anti-corruption police officers trying to get to the bottom of the matter could have their own legal representation.
In these two cases the appellant was listed as the Finance Minister, James Marape. But there were no fewer than seven respondents: Prime Minister O'Neill; PNG's Attorney General, Ano Pala; Paul Paraka; PNG's police force; the Independent State of PNG; Director of the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate, Matthew Damaru; and his Deputy, Timothy Gitua.
Nine lawyers appeared representing the various parties.
The court ruled that as police officers, Damaru and Gitua had to get the approval of the Attorney General to engage their own lawyers. But because they were taking legal action against the Attorney General in another related case he referred the matter to another senior PNG bureaucrat who said they could not retain their own lawyers.
They represented themselves anyway and won the subsequent Supreme Court ruling that they could continue their investigations. 'Now we can do our job,' Mr Damaru said. But, in the wake of his latest legal action, the final word probably belongs to Prime Minister O'Neill: 'It will take time before this issue is resolved.'
These days, it appears, every day is a field day for PNG's lawyers.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user APEC 2013.