Customary lands can be converted to freehold lands, says lawyer


By Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – WEDNESDAY 06 JUNE 2018: In the middle of the government assurances that customary lands are safe and protected under the controversial Lands and Titles Registration Act (LTRA) 2008, a lawyer has confirmed that customary lands can be converted or registered as freehold lands and sold under the same Act.

One of the leaders of the group against the LTRA 2008, lawyer Unasa Iuni Sapolu has confirmed with Talamua that she was recently involved as a lawyer for the  Plaintiff  in two such cases.

Another local lawyer also told Talamua that she too had successfully converted a piece of customary land into freehold land in a separate case.

Both lawyers cannot disclose the details of lands or families involved in their cases due to confidentiality between lawyers and clients.

However, Unasa pointed out that one of her cases involved the sale agreement of customary land dating to the time of the New Zealand administration.

She said the agreement to purchase land between a family chief – Sa’o, in a village near the town area and another family was done, but the land could not be registered then because customary lands cannot be leased or sold.

She said although the agreement was valid, the land could not be registered legally hence her clients action to retrieve what her client believed was rightfully theirs.

Lawyer Unasa Iuni Sapolu

Unasa further explained that the Respondent in the case then tried to get the land registered when the matter was raised in Court, but the Land Commission ruled in favour of her opposition against the registration.

Her opposition was based on the fact that customary lands cannot be sold and she successful fought her case.

“I went to do a search recently on another similar matter, of a piece of customary land also sold and found out that the land had already been registered legally under the LTR Act,” said Unasa.

Asked which provision of the LTR Act allows the conversion of customary land to freehold land, Unasa said the Lands and Titles Registration Act -Part 3 The Register (subsection 9 Inclusion of Land , and  Part 7 Section 32-Effect Of Registration.

She said the agreement – whether historical or otherwise done many years ago or recent are allowed to be legally registered under the LTR Act.

“When the lease and mortgage are registered under the LTR Act, it highlights the rights of the people funding such transaction and this is where the Property Law Act comes in. This is where the danger lies and how the Maori lost their lands,” said Unasa.

She insisted that Samoa customary lands are not safe under the Act, hence her perseverance in fighting to have the Act amended or repealed.

The issue had been put to Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi many times, and he insisted that such transaction is not allowed and will never be allowed.

Unasa believes the Prime Minister is either ill-informed or is ignorant of the provisions in the Act that allows such transactions.

Talamua has forwarded these issues to the Attorney General for his response.