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The mongrel

The PNG judiciary - present & future challenges


Extract from a paper, Law and Justice in Papua New Guinea, delivered at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (Queensland Branch). Download Justice Logan's full paper here

PAPUA New Guinea’s present population is approximately 7.3 million people. In my experience, this is not widely understood in Australia, even though Papua New Guinea is our nearest neighbour.

Though English, Tok Pisin (Pidgin), and Hiri Motu (the lingua franca of the Papuan region) are the official languages, Papua New Guinea has over 800 known languages.

The challenge of identifying custom which is nationally pervasive so as to adapt English common law as envisaged for the Underlying Law is considerable. What is genuine custom to one language group in one remote village may be unknown to a different language group on a different island.

About 15% of the population live in urban areas such as the capital, Port Moresby and the major provincial cities of Lae, Madang, Wewak, Goroka, Mt Hagen, and Rabaul. The remainder live in traditional village-based life, dependent on subsistence and small cash-crop agriculture.

The capital, Port Moresby, is not linked by road to Papua New Guinea’s other major urban centres. Air and sea transport offer the only direct links. Internet access can be problematic in Port Moresby, not to say expensive, even more so in provincial centres.

Such difficulties in physical and electronic communications complicate the administration of justice. Ever increasingly in Australia, the internet is used by both the judicial and practising branches of the legal profession for communications electronic databases are used for filing of documents and for legal research.

In Papua New Guinea, even when internet access is available, commercially published legal research databases may be prohibitively expensive. To some extent, this is addressed by publicly available databases such as the Pacific Legal Information Institute (PACLII) database and its equivalents elsewhere but these do not contain the full range of law reports, statutes and texts.

Hard copy law libraries which many firms in Australia have come to regard as obsolescent in the electronic age still have a useful role to play in Papua New Guinea. Yet the cost of maintaining these is also expensive, especially with exchange rate fluctuations. 

There has long been a need for expansion of the court house facilities in Waigani and upgrading of provincial court houses and judge’s residences in provincial centres.

Even in developed countries, governments often give such expenditures a lower priority than other needs such as health or transport or public utility infrastructure. In Papua New Guinea, the opportunity cost of such facilities is much more magnified.

Even so, Papua New Guinea’s Parliament has recently allocated funds which will allow for large scale upgrading works to commence at Waigani and in the provinces.

Australian aid funds have also been directed to the upgrading or expansion of the provincial court house and related criminal justice system infrastructure.

Advances in technology, related lowering of costs and budget allocation has also made it possible for Papua New Guinea to embark upon electronic court reporting and court record keeping. These are tremendous advances over a system which, of necessity, hitherto had Dickensian features.

With economic development and an expanding population has also come a need for a greater number of judges.

Further, amendments have been proposed to the PNG Constitution which will see the establishment of an intermediate appellate court, freeing the Supreme Court of much routine appellate work and allowing it better to focus on its charter of developing Papua New Guinea’s Underlying Law and the disposition, as a final appellate court, of cases of true national importance.

With this expansion comes an increased need for suitably qualified and experienced personnel both in judicial appointments and in the National Judicial Staff Service.

Recruitment for its expanded judiciary and the National Judicial Staff Service will present Papua New Guinea with fresh challenges, as will the replacement on retirement of existing senior judges and registry staff. The challenges are even more magnified if one takes into account the magistracy.

All of this highlights the importance of continuing professional development within Papua New Guinea’s legal profession and the engendering and fostering within the senior ranks of that profession of the ethos of public duty associated with the acceptance of judicial office.

The Honourable Justice Logan RFD is a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia


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