The Court of Appeal will hand its verdict on the legality of the Speaker of Parliament’s decision to dismiss former Deputy Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for Tanna, Joe Natuman on Friday next week.
His legal counsel, Edward Nalyal, has based his arguments on section 3 (1) of the Vacation of Seats Act [CAP 174], saying Mr. Natuman did get an imprisonment sentence but it was suspended by the court.
Section 3 (1) states: “If a Member of Parliament is convicted of an offence and is sentenced by a court to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, he shall forthwith cease to perform his functions as a member of Parliament and his seat shall become vacant at the expiration of 30 days thereafter:
“Provided that the Speaker, or in his absence, the Deputy Speaker, may at the request of the member from time to time extend that period for a further period of 30 days to enable the member to pursue any appeal in respect of his conviction, or sentence, so however that extensions of time exceeding in the aggregate 150 days shall not be granted without the approval of Parliament signified by resolution”.
In his argument in court on Tuesday, Mr. Nalyal made reference to the case of Mr. Barak Sope Maautamate, saying he was convicted when he was a MP and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
He said Mr. Sope served jail time from July 2002 until November 13, in 2002 when the President of the Republic at the time Fr John Bennett Bani pardoned him.
Mr.Nalyal submitted that Mr. Sope had not availed himself of the provisions under section 3 (1) of the Members of Parliament (Vacation of Seats) Act and later went claiming for his seat, but was prevented by the Speaker at the time, and the Appeal Court disagreed and dismissed the appeal.
He said Mr Natuman cites the case, especially to assist its position in the interpretation of the phrase “imprisonment for a term of not less than two years”.
“At Paragraph 6 on page 5 of the Maautamate case in the Court of Appeal, the court refers to the appellant submitting a MP becomes disqualified who is convicted and sentenced to ‘more than two years’ imprisonment’,” he submitted.
“Later at Paragraph 6 of the judgement the Court of Appeal refers to explanatory notes when the Bill was introduced to Parliament where to clear ambiguity as regards section 3 (1), it was amended to its present form to say ‘the section (would) disqualify a member who was convicted of an offence and sentenced to an imprisonment for 2 years or more’”.
Mr Nalyal said despite the Court of Appeal in that case holding there was no ambiguity in the words of section 3 (1). He submitted that the definition of ‘no less, than two years’ to be given its meaning.
“We say that the Explanatory note show clearly that section 3 (1) means ‘a sentence to imprisonment for 2 years or more’ cited in paragraph 6 of the judgement,” he said.
He also stated that in the Supreme Court the Chief Justice said that ‘if an MP is convicted and sentenced to more than 2 years, then the loss of his seat is automatic after 30 days.
Mr Nalyal challenged that this might be a mistake in the wording, but it demonstrates the thinking of the Chief Justice in reading section 3 (1).
Frederick Gilu from the State Law was not given the chance to argue on the case but he submitted that the proposition intended by the respondent is that a suspended imprisonment sentence is not an alternate form of sentence to an imprisonment sentence, it remains the same imprisonment sentence in which its execution is stayed until its suspension expires.
He also submitted that the meaning of “not less than two years” simply means two years or more.