When he took over as Minister for Justice in September 1994, Robert Nagle was given a list of his legislative duties. There were nearly a hundred statutory responsibilities in his brief. They covered everything from Organic Law on Provincial and low-level governments, the Power of Mercy, Companies Acts, land disputes, trusts and trustees, matrimonial causes and parole to sorcery, village courts and vagrancy.
Robert Nagle is not a lawyer. He is an accountant by profession. He has an Attorney General to administer the legal side. He also has 19 offices and branches within his Ministry. There are 409 trained staff.
The work of the Ministry has increased since Independence with the establishment of the Parole Board, for example, and the Village Courts Secretariat. There are about 950 village court officials in the country each of whom receives an allowance from the State for carrying out his duties. The idea is that they should come under Provincial government. The spread of justice throughout the country is also the concern of the National Narcotics Control Board which was established in 1992. The bureau is concerned with a new Controlled Substances Act, with a pilot project to raise awareness in schools, village courts and other target groups as well as with international linkages.
The Ministry also works with various constitutional offices which are free from political control. The Public Prosecutor’s office controls the performance of prosecutions in the National and Supreme Courts. It is entitled to bring proceedings under the Leadership Code for misconduct in office. The Public Solicitor provides legal advice and assistance to persons in need. The Law Reform Commission is an independent body which reviews the law with a view to its development, including modernisation, simplification and the elimination of defects.
One of the first things the Minister for Justice did was to look at costs. “The previous government went outside the Department drawing on certain lawyers from the private sector and this cost a lot of money,” points out the accountantturned- Minister with feeling. “We intend to restructure the department to get the best legal advise and the best terms.
Then the next thing is to ensure that all lawyers practising in PNG are Papua New Guinean nationals or at the very least 60% in any one practice. In special technical fields we will let the outsiders in, but it should be on a reciprocal basis with that country. We have agreements only with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia at present.”
The law of Papua New Guinea is a complex interweaving of customary and constitutional or ‘Western’ law. It takes the very best advice to sort it out. Minister of Justice Robert Nagle is very aware that foreign investors want to be confident they will not run into conflict over ownership of land or rights. However, while he has no power over the National Lands Commission which hears disputes and settlements over national land, he may act to transfer customary land to registered title and he may also be able to agree to compensation. Though currently he does none of these things without expert advice from the department. The department is currently setting up a compensation tribunal which will cover all compensation claims for damage to property arising from a renewable or non-renewable resource development project. However, it is considered that this is a notoriously difficult area in which to legislate. It could well be that a Steering Committee will have to be set up to advise on the form of the tribunal, its terms and legal functions or role.
In the last few years there has been some concern about corruption in high places. Minister Robert Nagle is determined to deal with it. He hopes to set up a Federal Investigation Branch, run on the lines of the FIB in Australia or the FBI in the United States. “There are crooked deals involving two and three million kina. A lot of bribery. The culprit walks free. Or it takes two to three years to prosecute. Why should it be different for him and others in high places than for every other person on the street who gets locked up for a lousy two kina”, says the Minister for Justice with passion. “What is required is a high level investigation which will make an example of the culprit. That should wipe out corruption at a stroke.”
One of this Ministry’s most important plans concerns Human Rights. For too long, especially in regard to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea has come under the United Nations spotlight for apparently transgressing human rights. Now there will be a Human Rights Commission which will, to quote the Minister, “protect the grassroots people who are ignorant of their rights.” Even the preparations for the establishment of the Commission have improved Papua New Guinea’s international image. They may well result in the withdrawal of complaints from the UN agenda. And they serve to present PNG as a civilised and democratic nation to the rest of the world.