Alternative Law Journal
BRITT LARDELLI[*] spent some time working as a prosecutor in Vanuatu.
In December of 2000 I congratulated myself on choosing the law as my vocation as I sat on the grass outside TAFEA Province Police Station looking out over a dramatic view of the Pacific Ocean.
I was visiting the volcanic island of Tanna in southern Vanuatu as a Prosecutor attached to the Public Prosecutor’s Office during a regular visit of the Supreme Court. I was at the station to explain in Bislama to a large group of indigenous islanders the meaning of nolle prosequi and the reasons the Prosecutor had chosen to enter one in a criminal prosecution involving the death of one of their family members. Bislama is the local pijin lingua franca and by virtue of the Constitution is the national language of, Vanuatu. This extraordinary experience was one of many during my six month stay in Vanuatu as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development, an initiative of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and administered by the Australian Agency for International Development (AUSAID).
Vanuatu is a country located to the South of Fiji with a population of approximately 200,000 people, 90% of whom live in rural villages. There are 82 islands in Vanuatu and transport is by boat or plane. The capital, Port Vila is located on the island of Efate and is the centre of government and administration.
Vanuatu is a country of many languages and people are multilingual. As a former joint French and British condominium, English and French are spoken as well as indigenous languages and Bislama.
An example of the multilingual nature of Ni-Vanuatu is the recent appointment of Vincent Lunabek as the first indigenous Chief Justice of Vanuatu. Chief Justice Lunabek is able to use French, English and Bislama in Court proceedings, depending on the parties and counsel appearing.
Difficulties with interpretaion are common. During the Supreme Court sittings the English Judge arranged for an interpreter for a child complainant in a sexual assault matter. The lawyer for the defendant was from the island of Tanna and spoke the indigenous language from the island that was being used by witnesses during the proceedings. This proved to be a considerable benefit during the proceedings when there were several stops because the questions put to the witness in Bislama and answers given were not accurately interpreted from the indigenous language to the satisfaction of the lawyer for the defence.
Learning and using Bislama in court proceedings was one of the highlights of my time in Vanautu. During a proceeding involving an alleged assault in the Port Vila Central Police Station cells I asked a question of the witness who was being held in custody at the time of the alleged assault in relation to whether he stayed in the cells from night until morning. The cells were known as Number 6 (Namba 6) and despite my best efforts I have been unable to determine why they have that name. I put the question to the witness as ‘Yu slip long Namba 6’. I was asked by magistrate whether I meant did he sleep or ‘overnight’ in Namba 6. I was not aware that ‘overnaet’ was a word in Bislama but am now much wiser.
Another aspect of working in Vanuatu was doing the work of a lawyer without the technology and facilities that many lawyers practising in Australia take for granted. These include audio recording of proceedings and the benefit of transcripts, taped (whether audio or audiovisual) records of interviews of suspects and video communication links for vulnerable witnesses. At present, records of interview are transcribed by the interviewing police officer and signed by the suspect. As there is no provision for court recordings, parties and the presiding judicial officer to the proceedings must ensure that a proper record is taken of evidence in the event that an appeal is made. A practitioner working in Vanuatu told me that affidavits of practitioners attesting to what was said during the proceedings are often necessary for appeals.
The provision of facilities for vulnerable witnesses was a relevant matter during the Supreme Court sittings on Tanna in December of 2000. The presiding judge ordered the court’s closure during the trial involving a child complainant. This was, practically speaking, difficult because the court house was of open design and did not have walls. The judge directed the public gallery to move well away from the Court House during the witnesses’ evidence. The judge then took his place at the seat normally occupied by the court orderly, took off his wig and ordered the legal representatives to remain seated during the child’s evidence. A screen was placed in front of the defendant who sat in the dock immediately opposite the witness box.
Making do with fewer resources than a lawyer in Australia would ordinarily take for granted was a feature of working in Vanuatu. However practising in a different cultural environment in a language other than English presented an interesting challenge.
[*] Britt Lardelli is a Northern Territory lawyer.
© 2001 Britt Lardelli