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Court: Appellate Division overturns Le'i title decision

The Appellate Division of the High Court has overturned the previous order by Land and Titles Court in the matter of the Chiefly Title Le’i, which was awarded to Nu’utai Sonny Thompson, from Ofu Manu’a.


According to the ten-page order and opinion issued last week, the Appeals Court says the Lands and Titles Court erred when it retained jurisdiction over the instant case after specifically finding there had not been a meaningful family meeting prior to Nu’utai’s filing of his petition for matai registration, which is why the Appellate court’s opinion is limited to discussing the issue of jurisdiction presented.


Nu’utai is represented by Matailupevao Leupolu, while Leutu Segila Vaeao is represented by Sharron Rancourt in this matter. 


Attorneys for Nu'utai told Samoa News they have filed a motion for an expedited status hearing at the Trial Court following this decision. However, the court has not yet set a date on the said motion for a status hearing — when this matter will be determined as to its next step. 


The  Appellate court noted in their order and opinion, they found Nu’utai’s selection at the Tutuila family meeting was procedurally wanting because it was neither convened in accordance with family tradition nor was it adequately publicized or ‘noticed’.


After concluding the meeting as convened did not provide a meaningful family decision, as contemplated by statute, the trial court, rather than dismissing the judicial proceedings (without prejudice) in deference to traditional family sway and control, nonetheless retained jurisdiction by remanding the matter to the family to hold another meeting in Ofu, to select a matai — either Vaeao or Nu’utai.


“By doing so, the trial court effectively stifled any further opportunity for unfettered clan input on the issue of matai nominations. Thus, those family members who were not able to attend the prior and inadequately noticed Tutuila meeting were effectively curtailed unduly from meaningful participation in the selection process, because they had no say whatsoever as to nominations for family discussion.


“The trial court undeniably injected its process into the Le’i family’s meeting by delimiting the agenda,” says the order and opinion. The Appellate court noted in their view, the trial court's purported retention of jurisdiction was in error because unless and until a family has had a meaningful opportunity to thoroughly confront the issue of matai succession and to decide for itself whether or not it can select a new titleholder, the Land and Titles Division really has no business entertaining matai title cases.


According to the opinion and order, although the Le’i family did subsequently convene as a family at a neutral setting of the family’s traditional guest house site in Ofu, the family nonetheless was convened not according to its customary protocols, but under direct supervision and control of the Lands and Titles Division as to whom the clans were authorized to consider as the next matai.


“The Appropriate action for the Lands and Titles Division to undertake after determining  the family meeting was improperly conducted, is to dismiss the case without prejudice and to direct the Clerk of Courts to provide the order to the Territorial Registrar so that all existing claims, counter-claims, and objections to the title may be administratively set aside.


“Such a court will result in a clean slate and will be conducive to providing the Le’i family with a meaningful opportunity for family discussion on the selection of a successor titleholder.”


The Appellate court noted, based on the foregoing, they vacate all orders issued on the Le’i title and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with the opinion and order.


The Opinion and Order was signed by Chief Justice Michael Kruse, Associate Justice John L Ward II, Acting Associate Justice Elvis Pila Patea and Associate Judges Fa’amausili Pomele and Muasau Tasina To’ofili.