INTERVIEW WITH JUSTICE CHETWYND
Justice Richard David Chetwynd from England was appointed to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Vanuatu and sworn in at the State Office on February, 2015.
His father was a British soldier. Justice Chetwynd was born at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal (the place from which a certain football club takes its name) because his father just happened to be stationed at Woolwich in the east of London. His family home is in central Wales near a place called Newtown and considers himself, in spite of his birth place as being Welsh.
He attended the Brunel University in West London in 1972 and after obtaining his degree in law he worked for a firm of Solicitors in Salisbury, Wiltshire. He qualified as a solicitor and his name was entered in the Roll in 1978.
He later moved to Cornwall in the west of England and worked as an assistant solicitor in several firms until 1986 when he joined a small practice named Bennet & Co. based in Truro, Cornwall.
In 1989 he was recruited by the Overseas Development Administration (now known as DIFD) as the Resident Magistrate for the Province of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. In 1991 he moved to Guadalcanal as the Chief Magistrate and Registrar of the High Court. He was also appointed Commissioner and presided over several High Court criminal trials.
In early 1993 he resumed his work as a Partner in the firm of Bennet and Co. but in 1996 started his own business as a sole practitioner under the name of R D Chetwynd & Co in the Cornish surfing town of Newquay.
In 1998 he was offered the opportunity to return to the Solomon Islands as Registrar and to train a local Magistrate as Registrar. The project was funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat. Unfortunately towards the end of 1999 the situation in Honiara deteriorated and the Magistrate he was training, Mr Nelson Laurere, was badly beaten by a group of Malaitan men and had to go into hiding. Some months later there was a coup.
Following the coup he was asked by the Chief Justice to take on the role of Chief Magistrate as well as Registrar. That work continued until RAMSI arrived and Nelson Laurere could resume his training. He continued sitting as a Commissioner throughout this period.
Justice Chetwynd left the Solomon Islands in 2006 and took up employment as Master and Registrar of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone until 2008. This placement was funded by the British Council.
His wife and himself returned to the UK but for family reasons had to move nearer London so that his wife Stephanie could take care of her sick mother. He then took up employment as the Local Land Charges Officer in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.
In 2010, he was asked if he wanted to return to Solomon Islands as a Judge of the High Court in a placement funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat. His wife had to remain behind in the UK to continue caring for her mother. After 2 years and with all the difficulties of travelling to the UK he made the decision to work closer to home and applied for the post of Registrar of the Supreme Court of Turks and Caicos Islands. He then moved to Grand Turk the capital of the country to work with an old colleague, Justice Edwin Goldsbrough, who had been appointed as Chief Justice but not long after taking up the post Stephanie’s mother sadly passed away and she was able to join him.
In 2014 he learnt of the possibility of appointment as a Judge in Vanuatu funded by Commonwealth Secretariat. He applied for the post and was accepted. He arrived in Port Vila and was sworn in in February 2015.
Justice Chetwynd agreed to sit down with us to chat about his time in Vanuatu serving as a Judge of our Supreme Court.
Thank you Justice Chetwynd for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us a little about your service in Vanuatu. We are very grateful.
- How long have you been in Vanuatu sitting as a Supreme Court Judge?
3 ½ years.
- How did you come to be in Vanuatu as a Judge?
I was contracted by Commonwealth Secretariat in London as part of their commonwealth fund for technical cooperation programme (CFTC).
- I understand that you were here when cyclone Pam hit. Was that your first experience of a cyclone and what was that experience like for you?
No, during my time in the Solomon Islands I experienced several cyclones but nothing quite as powerful as cyclone Pam. I do remember sailing in a government boat from Malaita Province to Ontong Java in the trailing edge of a cyclone. There was a problem with the engine and we managed 2 knots. My wife Stephanie and I were lucky during Pam, we had no damage to our property and no injuries. It was a sobering experience though seeing all the damage that was caused in Port Vila.
- What was your first impression of Vanuatu when you came here? Has that impression changed over time?
My first impression of Vanuatu was gained some 20 years ago on a flying visit from Honiara! It seemed to be a relaxed and comfortable place to live and work in. That impression hasn’t really changed and I still see Port Vila as a relaxed and comfortable place to live and work. Compared to Honiara it was, and probably still is, a very sophisticated city!
- Vanuatu is not known for being able to provide the most diverse activities to entertain persons. What have you done to relax in your downtime?
I travelled around Efate as much as I could and saw as much of the island as I could. Likewise, when on tour to the provinces I tried to see as much as I could of the Country. Otherwise, I play some golf and enjoy the dining out in the many fine eating places in Port Vila.
- Do you have a best memory that you might like to share with us?
There are so many good memories of Vanuatu I will take away with me. I think it would be hard for me to choose just one. Choosing a few at random, I would have to say the beautiful sunrises and sunsets seen here, standing on the rim of the crater of Mount Yasur, watching the kids having fun playing in the rain after a dry spell, the smile on most people’s faces when they first meet you.
- Tell the readers a bit about the work you were brought here to do?
My brief from the Commonwealth Secretariat was quite simple and that was to be of as much assistance as I could be to the Chief Justice. If in the course of my work I could pass on some experience and expertise that was a bonus.
- We know that the judges sit to decide both civil and criminal matters. What are the majority of the offences that come to be decided before you throughout the islands?
I regret to say that the majority of criminal cases I have dealt with involve sexual abuse of some kind, generally on young women, even children.
- According to your bio on the court’s website you have worked in other under-developed countries as well as in first world countries like the UK. How does Vanuatu compare with the UK in terms of its dispensation of justice and overall development of jurisprudence and how does it compare with the other lesser developed countries where you have also worked?
It is a little difficult to compare the UK with Vanuatu. There is a tremendous difference in the populations and the resources available. There is also a difference in the kind of work that the judiciary is called on to do in the UK compared to the judiciary in Vanuatu. For example, London is one of the premier commercial centres of the world and the courts there are required to deal with cases we are not likely to see in Vanuatu.
However, compared to the UK, I think the judiciary does pretty well here in Vanuatu. If I were to compare Vanuatu with Sierra Leone I would have to say Vanuatu provides a first class service. Compared to the Turks and Caicos Islands Vanuatu provides a very good service. The nearest in distance and quality would be the Solomon Islands. With the intervention of RAMSI in 2003 the Australian government invested a lot of money in the Solomon Islands judiciary for their own reasons. New court rooms and recording facilities were provided. Of course, that was 15 years ago and unfortunately there was no similar commitment to maintaining all that was new. In Vanuatu today there is a similar need for initial and continuing investment in the judiciary. Such support is long overdue and my own view is the judiciary does a pretty good job given the lack of support and resources provided by government.
I am disappointed that politicians only pay lip service to the Westminster system of Government and ignore the judiciary as the third arm of government. I also have experience of judiciaries in Cyprus and Papua New Guinea. Again, Vanuatu compares pretty favourably to those jurisdictions. I have not come across another jurisdiction where the final appeal court hears appeals within six months of them being filed and gives decisions within two weeks of the hearing of the appeal.
- As Judges you are required to travel across the islands of Vanuatu to sit on many matters. The court and its functions would, I imagine, be much more modern in Port Vila as it is the capital and a lot of the resources would be concentrated here compared with the other islands. Could you tell us the islands you do travel to, how often, and describe for us what the conditions are like in those other islands?
In the last 3 ½ years I have been on three or four tours to the provinces every year. I have sat on Malekula, Tanna, Santo, Ambae and Pentecost. The first three have purpose built courthouses. On Ambae I had to sit in accommodation provided by the province. On Pentecost I sat where I could!
There were very limited resources available on Pentecost and there was not even a police presence to assist. Ambae was marginally easier to tour but communication difficulties made work a little harder. What I can say is that no matter where I went on tour I was always made welcome. When I toured to Loltong earlier this year we held an awareness session. I was surprised to learn that there probably had never been another Supreme Court sitting at Loltong. When we opened up the floor to questions it was obvious that people were intrigued by what I and the other lawyers were wearing. In particular they wanted to know about my wig!
- If you could recommend one thing to the court to make it more efficient what would that be?
That is an easy question, the recording of evidence. I have designed and built recording systems in other jurisdictions and it makes the judge’s life a lot easier. However, even the most simple of recording systems (a PC, a mixing console, microphones and software) can be expensive and as you know our climate is not very kind to electrical systems. There is also the problem of what you do with the evidence once you have recorded it. It would cost a fortune to transcribe every piece of evidence recorded and even recording only what is essential is time consuming and therefore expensive.
- What for you has been the most rewarding part of this experience?
Being thanked for coming to work in such a friendly and beautiful country. Why would you not come to live and work in Vanuatu? It is also very rewarding to be told that you have contributed something to the development of the country.
- What has been your impression of the lawyers and what is the one piece of advice you would like to leave them with now that you are leaving?
I would rather not say. What I would say is that it is essential that an independent, properly funded and supported Law Council is required to police the legal profession. I would also like to see lawyers in Vanuatu being required to carry out continuing legal education.
- We know that while court is a serious place where serious things happen there can be moments of levity in situations where you just can’t help laughing out loud or maybe even having a chuckle. Have you had any of those that you would like to share with our readers?
I’m sorry to say that I have not had too many really funny moments in court here. I do remember sitting as a magistrate in North-East Malaita when the prosecuting inspector started his opening submissions. After a few minutes he said that he would like an adjournment. I asked him why. He considered the question for a few moments and said “Due to confusion” and sat down. Naturally, I had to grant the adjournment.
- So what’s next for you? Do you intend to return to private practise or continue sitting as a Judge elsewhere?
What is next for me…retirement! I might throw my hat in the ring for some consultancy work but at my age (68 before you ask) it is getting harder to enjoy gallivanting around the world. My wife and I are about to buy a house in a lovely small village in Somerset called Westonzoyland. Right next to the village is an old world war two airfield with a microlight club so I will probably take up flying again (if my wife will let me). There are also some good golf courses around the area and I can always fall back on my love of photography.
- What’s the last book you read?
The last book I read was Haraken (The Silver Ships Book 4) by SH Jucha. I am presently reading The Lord of The Ring Road (The Final Brentford Trilogy) by Robert Rankin. My favourite author is the late Sir Terry Pratchett. You can probably guess that I like science fiction and fantasy humour.
- What’s your favourite food from Vanuatu?
It would have to be the sea food. I was also introduced to something new when I went on tour to Pentecost last year with the late and sadly missed Mandeng the Registrar from Luganville. She acquired somehow from somewhere a small white vegetable which had the texture of an English potato. Unfortunately I keep forgetting the name of it and the ladies in the office here at the Supreme Court Registry are probably fed up with a me asking what it was!
- What’s your favourite restaurant here? And your favourite dish from that restaurant?
That is a difficult question. I would probably vacillate between Spice and Blue Marlin. My favourite from Spice would be the Tadka Dahl with the coriander chicken. Then from Blue Marlin it would be either the tuna or the slow cooked beef cheek.
- Which is your favourite island?
My favourite island? Surely you don’t want me to start a civil war. That, plus the fact I haven’t had the good fortune to visit every island means it’s a difficult question to answer!
- Name the nicest beach for you in all of Vanuatu?
The nicest beach I have visited would be Port Orly on Santo but I am sure that there are equally as nice beaches I haven’t been able to visit.
- Do you think the blue lagoon in Santo or in Port Vila is the best?
There you go again, you want me to choose between Santo and Port Vila and start a civil war.
- Assuming you’re returning to the UK what is the one thing you’re looking forward to eating and doing when you get back?
Yes, I’m going back to the UK after 20 plus years and what I am looking forward to is fish and chips and a pint of proper beer.
- Is there anything you can say that you’ve learnt from this country or its people in your time here?
Goodness me, there’s so much to choose from. When you start doing the work I have been doing you have this grand idea that you will be contributing so much to the country you’re working in and teaching the local professionals everything you know. You soon realise that rather than you teaching you are taught. From Vanuatu in particular I would probably say I have learnt or re-learnt to enjoy a sense of fun and I have been made aware of the sense of family I find everywhere here.
Well Justice Chetwynd we thank you for taking the time to answer our questions for our readers and thank you for the impeccable service you have given the country and wish you safe travels and enjoyment in all the rest of your pursuits. Tank yu tumas.
Diolch i chi am fy ngwahodd. Pob lwc a iechyd da yn y dyfodol.