Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The Pacific Community’s (SPC) Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT) and the Ministry of Justice, Government of Tonga are pleased to announce the launch of a new access to justice project in Tonga aimed at providing free legal advice and assistance to survivors of domestic violence. The project was launched on 8 December at the Ministry of Justice in Fasi-moe-afi in commemoration of International Human Rights Day on Sunday 10 December and during the 16 days of activism to mark the joint efforts to End Violence Against Women and Girls.
The new project will create a community legal advice Centre, based in Nuku’alofa. The Centre will offer services aimed at increasing the capacity of survivors to effectively apply for protection orders under the Family Protection Act through the provision and availability of free legal assistance. It is anticipated that the centre will open to survivors of violence in the first quarter of 2018.
Tonga is committed to gender equality and ending violence against women. The revised national gender and development policy (2014-2018) recognises that domestic violence is a “rampant problem, largely underreported, which affects our family, our society and our economy.”
One of the outputs of the policy is to enact measures to “eliminate domestic violence and provide services to the victims.” In line with these obligations, Tonga adopted the Family Protection Act (FPA) in 2013. It came into force in July 2014 and provides the legal framework for the protection of survivors of domestic violence.
RRRT worked with all the relevant stakeholders to develop the draft FPA and to pass the legislation through Parliament. The Act defines domestic violence and provides for specific roles and protection mechanisms to assist those that are affected by domestic violence.
One of the challenges in the implementation of the Act is the lack of free legal advice for survivors of domestic violence, and a lack of legal literacy around the application of protection orders. Accessing services in Tongatapu is costly and not practical especially when there is a need for urgent assistance, as is usually the case in matters involving domestic violence. In addition, there is a lack of services for survivors in the outer islands as most service providers are based in Tongatapu. Services available in the outer islands, such as police stations, offer limited options for survivors, and there are currently no permanent judges in the outer island courts, except for the Vava’u Magistrate’s Court.
RRRT is working with the Ministry of Justice to implement the family protection legislation to ensure that women and children are able to access the justice services and the protection offered by the legislation. The Ministry of Justice will take the lead in the implementation of this project. Office space at the Ministry of Justice has been identified for the centre near the Fasi-moe-Afi Magistrates’ Court and staff members will be recruited jointly by the Ministry of Justice and RRRT. RRRT will provide funding support and technical assistance to train and mentor staff members through the lifetime of the project. The centre is expected to open in the first quarter of 2018.
The new project will look at addressing the issue of lack of legal assistance to ensure that everyone in Tonga can have access to the services of the centre, and staff at the centre will be available to provide assistance over the phone to women who may not be in Nuku’alofa. Staff at the Centre will also travel to the outer islands with the regular court circuit in order to provide assistance in person as well as speak with other stakeholders in the outer islands to better tailor the services of the centre to the needs of those survivors.
Interim Director of SPC RRRT, Nicol Cave noted that: “The purpose of this project is to complement and work with agencies already providing services to survivors of domestic violence. RRRT recognises the important work being done by other partners and will work collaboratively to ensure that the work is not duplicated but rather integrated to assist the government in meeting all its obligations under the FPA”
Speaking at the launch event, Minister for Justice, Government of Tonga, Hon. Sione Vuna Fa’otusia said “the new Access to Justice project is being launched with the intent that vulnerable victims will find easy and faster, free access to services under the Family Protection Act. This project is part of instilling confidence in our laws and our justice system so vulnerable victims can seek help and redress”.
A number of other agencies have been involved in the creation of this project including the Attorney General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, TWCCC and other NGO partners.
RRRT and the Ministry of Justice acknowledge with appreciation the support of the Australian Government and the Government of Sweden in funding this project.
Media contact for Ministry of Justice: ‘Ana Laulaupea’alu, Legal Officer, Ministry of Justice [email protected] or +676 25 618;
Onorina Saukelo RRRT Communications Assistant, [email protected] or +679 330 5582.
Useful link: SPC Regional Rights Resource Team:http://rrrt.spc.int