John Appleby, Barrister & Solicitor with Ladbrook Law in New Zealand provides a fascinating account of his life as a practicing lawyer in Tonga from 1993 to 1999  – in a new book by this author entitled A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia-Pacific Legal Markets.  Here are some excerpts from that account:

What is — and where is — Tonga?

JohnAppleby_784x626_BW1Appleby begins by providing readers with a basic understanding of what and where Tonga is: “The Kingdom of Tonga lies just west of the International Date Line and consists of 176 islands and about 100,000 people. Never colonized, the population is ethnically homogeneous and proud of its independence. The King has, until recently, control over a feudal system where both political and economic power. They are more closely align than in most Western countries. Tonga was a British protectorate until 1970, yet was graced with British judges until 1993. The legal system is homegrown, but relies heavily on English law where there is a gap.”

Never a dull moment

As Appleby explains: “I practiced law in Tonga from 1993 to 1999 and, having found my wife there. I return frequently to visit my in-laws. I still maintain my Tongan legal practice. The economy is small and the players are learning the conventions of commerce that necessarily underlie overt legal relationships. It is a fascinating jurisdiction in which to practice and the opportunities for creative law abound. But because the community is so small, extra-legal obligations often prevail over the laws of the land.”

A fledgling democracy with sometimes unique challenges:

“There was and continues to be tension between the three organs of state – the fledgling democratic legislature, the judiciary, and an executive that has been cajoling into surrendering some of its power. These dynamics create significant challenges that are difficult to resolve through purely legal mechanisms.”

“And there is often a ‘local’ solution.

In one case Parliament took offense to certain publications, so it amended its Standing Orders. They arrested three journalists and committed them to prison for contempt. The first Habeas Corpus application was unsuccessful. But, when a full bench of the Supreme Court sat, it found that the amendment to the standing orders was procedurally incorrect. And They immediately freed the journalists. Shortly afterward, the Speaker of the House say words to the effect that he would “put a knife through the beard of the presiding judge”. So he face arrest and charges with contempt of court. He choose a trial by jury and the jury of commoners were incline toward his innocence.”

A modernizing economy, a royal court jester — and some missing treasure:

“Commerce, once traditionally dominated by the nobles is now more primarily driven by well educated and commercially minded Tongans as well as expatriates from Australia, New Zealand and Europe (mainly Germany and Italy). There is also a small Indian community, and a growing Chinese community.

The King of the time made some US$20-30 million from the sale of…passports, and the booty was held in an offshore bank account. When asked whether he would bring the funds back to Tonga His Majesty refused, saying the people would spend it unwisely. The story continues with an American entertainer eventually appointed court jester. The jester boasted investment skills, and persuaded the King to allow him to invest the passport money in offshore shares. A few years later, however, the jester, now domiciled overseas, admitted that the investments had failed and most of the treasure lost.”

Sometimes extra-legal solutions to legal problems:

“There is a significant amount of commercial activity but they often conduct it without proper contractual documentation; moreover, sanctions are often based on non-legal relationships and obligations. The British judicial system sits on an entrenched, sometimes confusing, Tongan network of social and familial obligations. The use of British laws is often selective to suit the situation. I had one instance where there was a motor vehicle accident. While on the face of it my commoner client clearly was in the right and the noble who ran into him in the wrong, it was my commoner client who face arrest and charge. Threats by me of civil proceedings for damages against the noble met with such strong intimidation and social consequences that all attempts at litigation were abandoned.”

“Lawyers had a field day during the pumpkin wars [local conflicts over pumpkin trade with Japan]. Yet there now seems to be a greater perception of the need to honour contractual commitments so that both sides benefit and grow a profitable future.”

A uniquely traditional Supreme Court: Wigs, gowns and sandals: 

” The Supreme Court does a circuit of the northern island group of Vava’u, sitting in the capital of Neiafu. There is a large and imposing courthouse with Roman columns and a very pleasing surround. Practitioners appearing in the Supreme Court need to wear the full regalia of wig, gown and bib. Not unsurprisingly, the footwear regulations are somewhat more comfortable with sandals and (as we call them in New Zealand), jandals often permissible in court. I fondly remember slipping my shoes off before standing to cross-examine a witness while in bare feet.”

On how to maintain a successful Tongan law practice:

“The South Pacific jurisdiction is unique in its culture, commercial and legal practices. It is most difficult to conduct a legal practice across jurisdictions and a local specialist is usually the only answer. To operate a successful business in any jurisdiction in the South Pacific, you need a working knowledge of island culture. And you also require a network of developed relationships. Truth, justice, the rule of law and “the British way” are not enough to win cases or successfully navigate deals. It is very much a case of “who you know”, not “what you know”.”

You can see all of John Appleby’s account of his life as a practicing lawyer in Tonga in: A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia Pacific Legal Markets. And click these links for more information about John Appleby and his New Zealand law practice, Ladbrook Law.

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