Justice ministry under severe financial strain

Monday June 12, 2017 Written by Published in Local
Justice Secretary Tingika Elikana after the Public Accounts Committee hearing at parliament. 17060242 Justice Secretary Tingika Elikana after the Public Accounts Committee hearing at parliament. 17060242

A large increase in the cost of fees landed Justice Secretary Tingika Elikana in front of the Public Accounts Committee.

 

And Elikana wasted little time in telling the committee members about the dire financial straits his ministry is in and how he is forced to technically break the law in order to keep it running.

Committee chairman Mona Ioane began by stating: “The public is concerned about the very high cost of fees, especially in areas of succession. If you could explain - if there is an increase in fees and how you came about those new fees.”

Elikana said the increase were in a number of services including registration of births, deaths and marriages, and also with regards to High Court fees and succession to lands.

He said there was a need to increase fees to alleviate the financial strain of running the ministry.

“We drafted the regulations and made them available to the public for comment.

“There was no response, so we assumed the public was satisfied with the level of fees.”

The Secretary said a lawyer supported the increase in fees in principle, “as long as those fees kept for use by ministry for its operations”.

The new fee structure went to Cabinet and the executive council and was approved.

“There were no adverse comments for the other fees. The focus on succession to the land has been where the adverse public comments have come from.”

Elikana said the last fee increase was in 2005.

The new charges, if you apply for successions, are $75 for first five lands and $10 for each additional one.

Six land applications will cost you $85.

Elikana said: “The fees are part of our trading revenue. Fines from crime go to the public purse.”

He added, the budget the ministry gets from the government is “insufficient for our operations”.

“We get $400,000 from government and our trading revenue is $500,000.

“We rely solely on trading revenue. If we don’t collect fees the whole operation collapses.”

And readers should note that does not mean the Justice ministry gets $900,000 a year to run the courts, registration services, probation or the prison, but just the government’s $400,000.

Any money the ministry earns above that should technically be given to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management.

Ioane said: “Concern with the committee is the public is not satisfied with increase and that’s the reason for calling this meeting.”

Elikana responded: “I can understand the concern, before for first five land applications it was $10.

“We were struggling to provide the quality of service we aspire to.”

The Secretary said one application could involve five lands. “What my staff does after that is not known to the public. There is a block file for each section of land and what my staff does is photocopy each application to go into the block files - at no cost – and then distribute them on to block files for other pieces of land. That’s the cost we carry for $10.”

Elikana said: “The increase is to assist us with our operations. The budget we have been given is insufficient.

“This is work outside of the courts. We have to convene the courts, the tribunal, the land courts, the court of appeal or the Privy Council – it has happened twice – and we have to provide funds for that.

He said the ministry is introducing the idea of Justices of the Peace dealing with minor matters. “Succession is seen a minor matter, so we are trying to ease the work on our judges otherwise they will be wasting their time when it should be used on more important matters.

“The fees may look high, but it is justifiable to provide quality service to Cook Islanders on things like capital value determine and disputed matters.”

The committee’s deputy chairman James Beer said: “There has been an increase much larger than normally expected.”

Elikana replied: “It is quite an increase, but from the ministry’s operational point of view it is justified.

“It is a shock to the system to go from $10 to $75. It is quite an increase, but if people want lower increases then there will be fewer court sittings because we can’t afford them.

“We can’t tell courts you have to hold it so our budget overruns.

“On land matters if we stop land courts sitting then it will have impact on development.”

Beer then asked: “Did you think about incremental increases so as not to slam dunk people?”

Elikana replied: “To be honest there were discussions to have incremental increases. The frustration is every time we go to Cabinet there is push-back.

“When I took over, these suggestions were already there and they are hard to get passed.

“We tried to get through and got pushed back. So I thought when I had the chance we’d go for it.”

Although, he admitted: “It would have been nice to be incremental.”

Beer said: “I find it interesting, with an Appropriation Act that sets out personnel and operations costs, why aren’t you doing it without referring to operational budget?”

Elikana: “The difficulty is I would have had to cut services. I did not want to take that path. The budget I have been given is $400,000, I should be living within that. Any extra should go back to MFEM.

“We have been arguing and pushing boundaries to get an increase to our operational budget.

“We are overspending to push Cabinet to understand we need funds. We have been overspending, breaking all the rules and that is something I personally decided to take on myself rather than have the public suffer because government won’t provide the funds.”

Elikana said the ministry’s trading revenue goes in its operational account. “By law, if we exceed the approved operational budget it should go back to MFEM.

“But I am using it to keep the ministry going.”

Committee member Tangata Vavia said: “It is a 60 per cent increase. Our people are finding it difficult for themselves now with this fee. We are not talking about a whole raft of fees just the 60 per cent rise in succession order fees. Couldn’t that 60 per cent be absorbed in other areas, rather than targeting succession orders?”

Elikana said: “This wasn’t seen as an area that was to be a huge money-making one. The fees had been already recommended before I got there.

“We may have a review of the fees. This area most people kick up about. With marriages, overseas people pay $100 and they are pretty happy with it.

“In the overall scheme of things … when we had chance to get things moving I grabbed it before pushback saying ‘do it later’.’’

Elikana said: “Justice should be provided with sufficient resources to run the courts.”

He said $217,000 was allocated for judges allowances, but that figure doesn’t cover travel or accommodation.

“That comes out of these fees and the $400,000 operational budget we are given.

Their allowances are covered, but there travel costs are not.”

And they can be expensive, like $3000 per person to the outer islands.

Vavia asked: “How would you feel if we tell the people that?”

“I would like that,” the Secretary replied.

Beer then asked: “When judges do travel what is their normal seating arrangement?”

“They travel business class, or first class, and often accompanied by partners. It is taken care out of operational costs.”

Elikana said: “By law, anything above our operational levels should go back to MFEM. But we are using it to operate.”

Committee member Ngamau Munokoa said: “It’s a burden on young people ... young people can’t afford it.”

The Secretary said: “From an operational point of view we do not create issues for access to the courts. If we can’t afford courts to sit we can’t reduce the fees.

“It is a balancing act.

“Funnily enough, MFEM hasn’t said anything to me. They understand these things.”

Ioane: “So you are doing the right thing?”

Elikana:  “I may be morally right, but legally definitely not.”

He added there were cases coming up in northern group and “we need to go there, there is no money for it, but it has to be done.”

Beer said: “We don’t want justice delayed as that is justice denied.”

Ioane asked: “What’s in the future?”

“Once we get all the data in, in terms of succession where the public is concerned, there is a window for fees to be looked at again. That’s something we can do.

“The fees we are getting now show it is more than what we budgeted for, so we can make some adjustments.”

Vavia: “Any government should take responsibility for this. The government is pushing justice back on to the people who can afford to pay the least cost. The government should be looking closely at how any government treats justice services. I know it is your job to administer, but there is a bigger concern here.”

Munokoa added: Our government should be looking into this. It is our heritage.”

Elikana said: “Ideally Justice ministry funds should be provided from the operational budget and then trading revenue should top it up.

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