Crime & Court

2019 SODELPA AGM Invalid, Judge Sharma Rules

He said the plaintiffs’ right to freedom of political choice and right to participate in the activities of a political party were violated and contravened by the defendants.
24 Apr 2020 14:50
2019 SODELPA AGM Invalid, Judge Sharma Rules
SODELPA members Emele Duituturaga (second from left), Mere Samisoni (sixth from left) and (right), Watisoni Nata with party supporters outside Suva courthouse on April 23, 2020. Photo: Ronald Kumar

The validity of SODELPA’s 2019 annual general meeting (AGM) and elections made during the AGM have been deemed unlawful, invalid and ineffective by a Suva High Court judge.

Justice Vishwa Sharma ruled against the party and its officeholders yesterday and declared that the AGM breached the party constitution and Fiji’s 2013 constitution.

The elections of Ro Filipe Tuisawau as president and Adi Litia Qionibaravi as vice-president were also ruled as invalid, including all subsequent actions, meetings and decisions of the Management Board following the AGM.

The court further declared that Adi Litia has ceased to be a member of the Management Board by virtue of Section 13.8.1 and 13.8.3 of the party constitution.

By way of originating summons, the plaintiffs had requested the court to issue an order to vacate Ro Filipe, Adi Litia and the General Secretary Usaia Waqatairewa from their office and for the Management Board to fill their vacancies until the next AGM.

However, Justice Sharma refused this saying that the fact that they had acted in breach does not mean that they are not entitled to hold office in their respective capacities.

He said the matter is for the party’s financial members to elect or remove office bearers and not for the court to do so.

Further, the defendants have been ordered to pay the plaintiffs $2000 within 14 days.

In the detailed 24-page ruling delivered yesterday, Justice Sharma said the plaintiff’s rights were infringed when they could not participate in the activities of the party, namely at the AGM.

He said the plaintiffs’ right to freedom of political choice and right to participate in the activities of a political party were violated and contravened by the defendants.

The court ruled that the defendants breached the party constitution when it accepted the motion submitted by the President of the Suva Constituency, Watisoni Nata, proposing amendments to the SODELPA constitution, but then asked him to speak on it at the Management Board meeting.

Justice Sharma said it was a fundamental breach and error because once the motion was accepted, it should have been tabled at the AGM and there was no requirement for Mr Nata to speak on it at the meeting.

Justice Sharma also found that Adi Litia failed to communicate formally to all constituencies, inviting motions for consideration at the AGM four months prior and that Anare Jale, in his capacity as acting president and chairperson, compromised the anonymity of members’ votes while conducting the elections of the two office bearers.

He said Adi Litia’s admission that the ballot papers were endorsed with the printing of receipt numbers at the back, amounted to tampering of ballot papers and voters’ votes.

Justice Sharma further ruled that a breach in a party’s constitution cannot be considered as a breach of the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Act of 2013.

He said political parties were separate bodies, recognised by law and the internal affairs of the party were governed by their own constitution.

Furthermore, he stated that Adi Litia’s election as vice-president, while being paid as the general secretary during the AGM, is in breach of the party’s constitution.

Ro Filipe, Adi Litia on future

Following yesterday’s landmark High Court ruling against SODELPA, its president Ro Filipe said he was relieved that a decision has been made on the issue.

He also said they would analyse the ruling before deciding on their next step.

“The important thing is that the court has recognised the need for the party machinery to carry on and that is in the ruling and I’m happy about that,” Ro Filipe said.

“The office bearers carry on and particularly the ruling that it’s for the financial members to decide on the president, vice-president and general secretary.

“We will study all those and look at the practicality of how we could implement that and in terms of whether there’s an appeal or not, we will need to analyse it with our legal advisors on our next step forward.

“At this juncture I’d like to state that the most important thing right now for SODELPA is to pass this stage and work on how we can unite the different opinions, because the critical issue is that we must prepare for the 2022 election and as president I’d like to resolve all these issues by the end of this year so that come January 2021, we are in the right frame of mind and also in terms of preparation for 2022 elections or even early 2023, depending on the decision about that.”

In regards to the next AGM, he said: “Given the restrictions in place, we will need to assess that or whether the restrictions will be lifted by then and then there are provisions within the constitution about the timeframes regarding notifications which we will need to take into account before any decision is made.”

General secretary Adi Litia Qionibaravi said for now they would hold office in the interim until the new AGM date was decided.

“The decision has been given, they have made the court decision and we will continue to be in office until the financial members through the AGM or special general meeting decide, which means that we will have another election,” Adi Litia said.

“The AGM will depend on the coronavirus because we need 100 financial members, so it can be June, December or 2021.”

Plaintiffs’ comments

The plaintiffs led by Suva Constituency President Watisoni Nata said the court ruling was a victory for democracy.

“It is a victory for good governance, accountability to the party’s voters and supporters, and confirmation that the party members have the right to seek the Court’s intervention in circumstances.”

They said the AGM and elections deprived everybody of a fair chance to choose ethical leaders to serve as president and vice-president.

“It is important that the members of SODELPA and the people of Fiji be given leaders who are credible, and this is to be done in the next AGM that the court has ruled is necessary. And the buck starts with the leaders – they must be ethical, transparent, and strong to take the necessary decisions as we have displayed.

Edited by Jonathan Bryce


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