Coffee and Controversy: Custom and the Law

Kastom and the law was the topic of yesterday’s Coffee & Controversy.

Can they co-exist? In light of the recent contempt of court ruling against Chief Viraleo Boborenvanu (Viranleo John James as named by the Supreme Court) and his group, can we actually use both to run our country?

The panel consisted of Anita Jowitt, Law Lecturer at USP; Chief John Tari, Paramount Chief of Ambae; and Dan McGarry, Media Director for Daily Post. The show was hosted as always by 96 Buzz FM’s Mark O’Brien.

Chief John Tari holds a flexible view of when and where to dress in kastom clothing. He said that custom dressing was okay when a person feels it is appropriate, for a certain occasion or to be recognised as a high ranking leader in a community.

“I do not see anything wrong if you want to wear your traditional costume anyway, because it is your identity.

“But at the same time, everyone is under the Law,” he said.

“It is not necessary to wear the traditional dress to court.”

Daily Post’s Dan McGarry said that in spite of commentary on social media about Chief Viraleo’s right to dress in traditional costume and eventually found in contempt of court, “The focus should be on the serious criminal cases that the chief and his group were involved in that have caused civil unrest”.

Ms Jowitt said that the legal system should be effective whether it was French, English or Common Law, all of them should be considered as one due to values and norms of culture.

“There are different customs here in Vanuatu and the codification of Customary Law will be hard to deal with,” she said.

Chief Tari reiterated that there were different ways of ruling of custom in the islands of Vanuatu and made an example of keeping custom as well as respecting the rights of an individual.

“In Ambae, I have a cousin (a Chief) who looks after the other village next to mine and has set the rule that women and girls were not supposed to wear trousers and braid their hair in his village,” he said.

“This is to keep the peace and harmony in his village, but I told him that this was not good because in this generation, they have their own ways of thinking and doing things unlike us who were accustomed to our traditional ways of living and respecting each other.”

Chief Tari said that because time is changing, the state law and customary law will have to also change for the good of the country.

Ms Jowitt said that when the leaders of the communities stopped women from wearing trousers then it is in conflict with the constitutional rights of an individual.

“Apart from that I will have to keep my dignity and respect by not wearing bikinis or tight trousers when I go to the villages or out in the public.”

Daily Post’s Dan McGarry raised a query if custom reconciliation was a positive measure when it comes to rape cases that were dealt in court.

“Is it right to use custom reconciliation to reduce the sentence of the offenders in court because rape is a serious case – there should be a balance between the seriousness of the case and where custom can come in,” he said.

Ms Jowitt said that due to the regular way of custom reconciliation between families, using it solely as a mitigating factor in court to get a reduced sentence was devaluing kastom itself.

“Whether the family accepts the custom reconciliation or not, it will still be considered in court as a motion to reduce the sentencing.”

The panel concluded that there should be a limit to where custom can intervene because it will have to put into consideration the seriousness of the criminal cases and leave it to the state Law, to keep peace and harmony in the country.

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