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History of Government and Laws, Part 8

“The Development of the System of Government and Laws of Pitcairn Island From 1791 to 1971"
Printed in and taken from Laws of Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, Rev. Ed., 1971
By Donald McLoughlin, B.A., LL.B.

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The Simons Constitution and Laws of 1904

The system of parliamentary government introduced in Pitcairn Island with the 1893 Constitution and Laws was to prove short lived, lasting in fact for a little over 11 years. In practice it proved too cumbersome for the small island community and just did not work. Whether this was attributable to the system itself or to the state of affairs on the island is difficult to say at this juncture. All that can be said is that the general state of laxity within the community, reported on prior to its introduction, did not improve. At the same time the increased interest in the Island shown by the officers of the Western Pacific High Commission resulting on the application to Pitcairn of the Western Pacific Order in Council, 1893, and on the Island's one and only murder case in 1897, resulted in a substantial re-evaluation of the whole position culminating in a visit to the Island in 1904 by Mr. Simons.

Although the pre-1893 position did appear to have improved during the first 8 years of the operation of the new constitution, the Islanders relapsed into their former state once they began to lose confidence in their only really strong personality and leader, James Russell McCoy, and the general feeling of dissatisfaction with the state of their affairs was again apparent on the Island(41).

Simons, reporting in 1904 on his own observations in relation to the operation of the 1893 Constitution stated as follows:---

“For some time this method of administration worked harmoniously enough, and it is only within the past two or three years that inquietude has been manifest. During my visit to the island I perceived that the functions of the Members of Parliament had become merged in those of the President: that the judges annually elected were oftentimes incompetent to deal with the matters brought before them and frequently incapable of enforcing their decisions: that jealousies amongst the officials had become rife and that, in view of the general laxity observable, a radical change was necessary. Accordingly, before my departure from Pitcairn Island and in accordance with Your Excellency's instructions of the 26th of February last, I inaugurated a new system of government based on the requirements of the community as I found them.“(42)

On the morals of the islanders Simons reported:---

“With regard to the morals of the islanders in the aggregate, I fear I can say little in their favour; Fornication, adultery, illegitimate children, petty thefts, brawls, bad language, etc., are faults amongst them (happily they do not use intoxicants) and it was disquieting to learn that the laws and regulations dealing with these offences had seldom been enforced. Indeed the general laxity has been so great that abortion, brought about by means of drugs and instruments of local contrivance, was not of infrequent occurrence. I have made provision for the punishment of that and of other crimes in the future.“(43)

Later in his report, Simons, after stating that the Islanders were “exemplary in their attendance at work day prayer meetings and church gatherings“ went on to say “but, nevertheless, vulgar stories and obscene songs are not unknown to them and it is an alleged fact that, on suitable occasions, women will accompany the men on board of passing ships, ostensibly to sell curios, but in reality for immoral purposes.“(44)

So, apparently on the instructions of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific(45), Simons set to work to draft a code of laws and to devise another system of government for the Island. For the first time Pitcairn was to have a code of laws and system of government not devised by an officer of the Royal Navy but by a civilian official.

The principal feature of the new code of laws was the abolition of the parliamentary system of government introduced by the 1893 Constitution, and its replacement by a reversion to the traditional form of government under the head of an annually elected Chief Magistrate with the assistance of a council of four of whom two, called Assessors, were elected annually by the people and the remaining two known as the Chairman of the External Committee and the Chairman of the Internal Committee respectively, elected annually by the Chief Magistrate and the two Assessors. In addition it provided for the new post of an annually elected Government Secretary to perform all the necessary administrative functions on the island under the directions of the Chief Magistrate and also the functions of Government Treasurer(46).

In establishing the complete precedence of the Chief Magistrate as the principal official authority on the Island, Simons accepted the trend apparent under the former Parliamentary System of Government for the functions of the members of the Parliament to be merged in those of the former President. By reducing the number of officials he apparently hoped to achieve a more competent government in which the other officials could exert more influence by the creation of separate committees charged respectively with the internal and external affairs of the Island, and working to the Chief Magistrate in Council. These committees elected by the Chief Magistrate in Council were empowered to draw up local regulations which were to become law on being approved and promulgated by the Chief Magistrate in Council.

The Island Court was also re-constituted with the Chief Magistrate as chief judicial authority sitting alone in minor cases, involving a penalty of five pounds or less and with the two annually elected Assessors, in all other cases. Provision was made for regular settings of the Court on the Monday of the second and fourth weeks of each month and in the event of any serious cases occurring for which provision was not made in the local laws and regulations for jurisdiction to be exercised by the High Commissioner's Court for the Western Pacific sitting at Pitcairn Island as occasion may require under the provisions of the Western Pacific Order in Council, 1893.

As regards the laws themselves, these remained much the same as under the 1893 Constitution but somewhat improved upon and expanded. For instance the former Law 1, which provided for the punishment of any unsuccessful complainant before the Court, was now abolished, as was the former Law 20 which provided the death penalty for a dog found killing fowls or eating eggs, although the latter law was soon re-enacted by the islanders in the new regulations drawn up by the Internal Committee and approved and promulgated by the Chief Magistrate in Council(47).

Other changes effected were that seduction of a girl under the age of 14 became a specific offence by the new Law 2, which also made provision for the father of an illegitimate child to be fined five pounds plus a sum of 2/- a week for the maintenance of the child until it attained the age of 14 years. This law read with Law 5, which made it an offence for unmarried persons of either sex to congregate together in such a manner as to cause scandal or to endanger the morals of the young members of the community, was to receive a somewhat quaint interpretation by the Island Court. Within a few years, it invariably imposed a fine of five pounds on both the mother and the father of an illegitimate child even though the mother was the complainant before the Court, and only rarely made any order against the father for the maintenance of the child.

Specific provision was made for cases of rape which by Law 3 were required to be referred to the High Commissioner's Court for the Western Pacific as were cases involving the new offence of abortion.

Other provisions were introduced relating to the use of firearms for which a licence was required for the first time at the rates of 2d. for 3 months, 3d. for 6 months and 6d. for a year, thereby constituting Pitcairn's first and only form of taxation and in consequence its sole source of official revenue apart from court fines until the introduction of the first issue of postage stamps in 1940.

More detailed provisions were also made for court procedures, including provision for the taking of evidence of children, acquainting foreigners with the laws and regulations of the Island and prohibiting the importation of alcohol by islanders except for medicinal purposes and then only with the written permission of the Chief Magistrate, and restricting the importation of alcohol by other residents and foreigners to that required for their personal use, and that also subject to the written sanction of the Chief Magistrate.

Provision was also made for the Chief Magistrate assisted by his Council to hold inquiry into the death of any person under suspicious circumstances and for a report thereon to be forwarded for consideration by the Deputy Commissioner.

Additions were made to the laws by Captain E. S. S. Gaunt of H.M.S. “Cambrian“ in 1906 and approved by Mr. Simons, making provision for the issue by the Chief Magistrate of a search warrant for the purpose of discovering stolen property and prohibiting the boarding of any passing ship until it had been definitely ascertained that no sickness of any kind existed on board.

These laws were supplemented by instructions relating to the conduct of elections of government officials, including the Chief Magistrate and the two Assessors, on a day between the 20th and the 25th of December in each year. The persons eligible to vote comprised all native born inhabitants of Pitcairn Island over the age of 18 years. Foreigners were only to be permitted to take part in an election and local affairs if the other members of the community agreed. They were absolutely prohibited, however, from election to the post of Chief Magistrate or as an Assessor, these posts being reserved for natives of Pitcairn Island (shades of the Joshua Hill regime).

Instructions were subsequently given by Captain Vaughan Lewis of H.M.S. “Cambrian“ in 1909 regarding the appointment of a constable “or some person independent of the case“ to prosecute in court and prohibiting the Chief Magistrate himself from prosecuting cases, as well as for the regulation and conduct of the island prison, formal provisions for which had been made for the first time by instructions given by Captain E. E. S. Gaunt of H.M.S. “Cambrian“ on the 21st of July, 1906.

These laws were further amended by instructions given in 1911 by Captain G. R. Gaunt of H.M.S. “Challenger“ and in 1913 by Mr. H. A. Richard the then British Consul and Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific at Tahiti. They were also supplemented by regulations made by the Internal Committee and, until 1911 by regulations of the External Committee, which body was abolished in that years as having insufficient work to justify its continued existence and because of conflicts which had arisen between it and the Internal Committee as to the exercise of their respective functions. The two sets of regulations were then amalgamated under the Internal Committee which consequently expanded its functions to include those of the former External Committee(48).

Like the 1893 Constitution, the 1904 Constitution got off to a good start and continued to operate quite well for several years until the situation again deteriorated. However, with the guidance and assistance in the early years of Mr. Simons and his successor, and of the visiting naval officers referred to, eventually settled down reasonably well with the result that subsequent to the abolition of the External Committee in 1911 it remained in force with relatively little amendment until 1940 when it was substantially revised and the laws replaced within substantially the same system of government which continued in operation until its partial replacement in 1964 by the Local Government Ordinances, 1964. The balance was replaced in 1966 by the Justice Ordinance, 1966(49).

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(41) Maude I, pp. 90-92 for a general discussion on McCoy’s leadership.

(42) Simons, pp. 1-2.

(43) Simons, p. 5.

(44) Simons, pp. 6-7.

(45) Simons, p. 2.

(46) See Maude I, pp. 93-4 for a brief discussion of the 1904 Constitution and Laws, and Shapiro pp. 302-18 for a copy of the Laws, Regulations and Instructions reproduced from “The Pitcairn Island Civil Recorder” referred to by Maude and Shapiro as the “Book of Records of Pitcairn Island.” With the abolition of the External Committee in 1911, the post of Chairman of the External Committee also disappeared.

(47) Inserted between regulations 7 and 8 of the Internal Committee Regulations in the Pitcairn Island Civil Recorder.

(48) See Shapiro pp. 300-17 for details of these amendments and instructions and Maude I pp. 93-4 for the general position.

(49) Now Chapter 3 of the Revised Edition.

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