Lavulavu found guilty of contempt; Court says offending material must be taken off internet

The Supreme Court has found former Cabinet Minister Etuate Lavulavu guilty of contempt of court.

‘Etuate Lavulavu

He has been fined TP$15,000 and ordered to remove the offending material from the internet.

Lavulavu and his wife were convicted on charges of financial irregularities surrounding an educational institution they ran. The Court of Appeal quashed the convictions and sentences in October 2022. The trial attracted much media attention.

The court was told that VPON Media and Broadcasting ran a total of 10 programmes of interviews with Lavulavu to discuss the case. The programmes were live streamed via Facebook and YouTube.

In his summary of the trial, dated May 8, Acting Lord Chief Justice Tupou said that during a live streamed program on October  26, 2022, the Defendant, in response to a question from the interviewer, said:

“Yes I believe that is what happened and it was not just me who saw them. I was very surprised ……. But they are political figures, two of them and others who are higher level than the Judge …. I really felt that he believed these people who were trying to mislead him from the side and that’s where the truth was lost … “

It was determined that there was a prima facie case of contempt against Lavulavu for the statement, which imputed that the trial Judge’s decision was influenced by political figures and persons of high rank.

The prosecution said the statement struck at the core function of a Judge and his oath to perform truly and with impartiality, his duties as a Judge. The statement had been widely published in Tonga and abroad.

Lavulavu had maintained his not guilty plea throughout the proceedings and the statement had severely affected the judiciary and undermined public confidence in the administration of justice in Tonga.

Judge Tupou said allegations that a Judge was partial or biased were calculated to bring that Judge into contempt and had been considered by this court as serious because they undermined confidence in the basic function of a Judge.

“Advanced technology has made the creation and publishing of content by any person at any time widely accessible and at very little to no cost,” the judge said.

“Such advancements, when used safely, of course benefits society. Similarly, its user friendly nature makes it susceptible to misuse and/or abuse. And when used in the latter, damage to individual’s rights, privacy, reputation and institutions such as the courts in this case is at the click of a button to an infinite audience. It is disappointing that the offending programme is still up and available on YouTube.”

The judge said the incident of contempt was a direct allegation of bias against the trial judge. “Bias, if proven, may fall under judicial misconduct,” she said.

“The allegation is that serious. It seeks to question the credibility of His Honour’s decision not only on this matter but potentially to all other matters on which he presides. In a small jurisdiction, where the Supreme Court bench consists of three judges, the damage inflicted on the administration of justice is critical.”

Lavulavu  was fined TP$15,000 to be paid within four weeks. The court ordered that if he failed to pay the fine within the specified time he would be jailed for a fortnight.

Judge Tupou said the offending programme must be removed immediately. Lavulavu was to file a memorandum with the court confirming its removal within seven days from sentencing.

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