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History of Government and Laws, Part 11

“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 Pitcairn Order in Council, 1952

In 1952 a change was to take place as the result of the enactment in London of the Pitcairn Order in Council 1952, by which responsibility for the administration of the islands was transferred from the Western Pacific High Commission to the Governor of Fiji, who also became the Governor of the islands of Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno. This was necessitated by the transfer of the headquarters of the Western Pacific High Commission from Suva to Honiara and meant no change in actuality but merely continued the previous system of administrative control from Suva.

For the first time, Ordinances were enacted in 1952 having application solely to the islands which now acquired the legal status of a separate Crown Colony as distinct from merely British possessions falling within the gambit of the Western Pacific High Commission territories. The first Ordinance enacted made provision for the interpretation of Pitcairn Ordinances, and the second provided for the Pitcairn Island Government Regulations, as amended in 1949 and 1950, to have the force of law(65). Two other Ordinances were enacted in that year making comprehensive provision for the registration of births and deaths on the Island and for the solemnization and registration of marriages. In the following year substantial amendments were made to the 1940 Regulations, the effect of which were to provide for the Island Magistrate to hold office for a period of three years instead of one year as before, and for the other elected officers, namely the two assessors and the Chairman of the Internal Committee to continue to hold office for a period of one year only, thereby ensuring continuity in the principal government office on the island but requiring the holders of subordinate posts to come up for election annually. Detailed provision was also made for the filling of the casual vacancies and for the appointment of acting officials in the event of the illness or absence of any of the elected officials. The ages of compulsory school attendance were also amended from between six and sixteen years to between five and fifteen years(66).

The next official administrative visit to the Island was made in October, 1953 by Mr. J. B. Claydon, then of the Pitcairn Office in Suva, who resided on the Island from the 31st October, 1953, until the 26th of December in the same year.

Claydon on the whole found that the islander themselves had no real complaints about their system of government and were quite contented with their lot. The inspector of police, appointed in the result of the Dobbs’ recommendations, had certainly improved police procedures although adding to his personal unpopularity with his fellows in doing so. The administration of the laws of the Island Council, however, still left a lot to be desired largely due to the lack of official guidance and advice in the carrying out of their day to day tasks and in the conduct of meetings(67). Accordingly, to overcome this situation, Claydon recommended the appointment by the Governor of the education officer, a New Zealand school teacher on secondment to the Island, as an advisory member of the Island Council and as auditor, to carry out regular audits of the accounts of the Chief Magistrate, the Island Secretary and the Postmaster(68). He also recommended the enactment of Ordinances, making provision for the regulation of the landing on and residence in the islands of outsiders, to ensure formal control over them by the Governor; for the adoption of infants, to take account of and afford legality to the many informal adoptions on Pitcairn Island; and for the formal control of the postal service(69).

Ordinances making provision for these matters were duly enacted shortly after Claydon’s return to Fiji(70).

The implementation of the Claydon recommendations for the appointment of an Education Officer as Advisory Member of the Island Council and as Auditor(71) effected a slight improvement in the administration of the Island, with the result that, on my visiting the Island in February and March of 1958, I found the Council working reasonably satisfactorily and could find nothing seriously wrong with the manner in which they carried out their functions apart from a fundamental disinclination by the Island members to shoulder their own responsibilities and a tendency on the part of some education officers to take advantage of their position to pursue their own ideas(72). Chosen rather for their capabilities in the schoolroom than in matters administrative, and being accustomed to a position of ascendency over their pulpits, they were not always the most suitable persons to be entrusted with the somewhat difficult and delicate role of an administrative advisor. It soon became apparent that more care was required in the selection of candidates for this role and that they should be given a period of training and instruction before assuming duty, or that, as had been recommended by former official observers, a trained administrative officer should be stationed on the Island for a period of approximately two years at least.

The Council was, however, in fact working as well as could be expected in the circumstances then prevailing. As regards the Island Court, the procedures still left a lot to be desired, due, I am satisfied, principally to a lack of knowledge on the part of the members of the Court as to what was required of them or as to how the Court should be conducted. Over a period of nearly six weeks I discussed the various aspects of the island administration with the island officials and, with the newly appointed education officer in an attempt to minimise the difficulties which were apparent. In addition, apart from holding the second Judicial Commissioner’s Court on the island (the first was the occasion of the 1897 murder) when I heard the island’s first and only divorce case, I devoted a considerable amount of time in explaining and demonstrating court procedures to the members of the Island Court and to the Inspector of Police. All showed considerable interest in learning the right way to carry out their functions, and, with the aid of notes for their guidance which I left with them and simple demonstrations, I was confident that this aspect of the Island’s affairs should remain reasonably under control until a new code of laws could be introduced removing the difficulties and misunderstandings on their part as to the interpretation of the laws, which became apparent in the course of my discussion with them.

The principal complaint about the Court was that, as its three members were also members of the Island Council, there was a strong tendency for court cases to be pre-determined by discussions in the Council. These and other matters relating to the system of government and laws of Pitcairn Island were discussed both formally and informally at public meetings attended by all members of the community as well as at several meetings of the Island Council and with individual islanders who sought me out to air their views. In the result, a number of recommended changes were put to and agreed upon, first by the Island Council and subsequently by public meetings attended by all adult members of the community(73).

Consequent upon these recommendations and in the light of the unanimous agreement of the community, consideration was then given to a complete revision and codification of the laws of the Colony with a view to making more comprehensive provision for the hearing and determination of cases both within and outside the jurisdiction of the Island Council as well as the enlargement of the Island Council to provide for a wider degree and representation of interests on it. It was also proposed to separate the functions of the Council and the Court by substituting two assessors, chosen from a small panel on a simplified jury system for the two annually elected assessors as before, thereby ensuring that the two assessors sitting with the Magistrate should be the persons most acceptable to the parties in each particular case before the Court, and reducing to a minimum the possibilities of bias and the pre-determination of cases outside the Court.

The Pitcairn that I visited in 1958 was a comparatively prosperous and contented community. The economy was based almost entirely on the sale and barter of island curios and fruits with the passengers and crews of passing vessels, which in that year totalled 58 or an average of just over a ship a week. Whilst the thriving orange trade with New Zealand had virtually ceased as the result of severance of communication during the 1939-45 war, the new trade which developed with the increase in shipping in the post-war years enabled a substantial increase in the incomes of the islanders. >From my observations I was able to estimate the average family income (on the basis of a family comprising a married couple and their unmarried children) at about ten dollars a week in cash, in addition to which they obtained ships’ stores and other commodities on a barter basis(74). Most houses were provided with a supply of electricity either from the school supply or from one of the other islanders who owned his own supply plant and nearly all, with some notable exceptions, were comfortably furnished and well kept(75). The overall impression was that of a reasonably prosperous, hard working law abiding and contented little community. They undoubtedly had their minor differences amongst themselves but these were not really serious and I considered them as having no real significance.

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(65) The interpretation and General Clauses Ordinance, Chapter I of the Revised Edition and the Pitcairn Island (Local Government) Regulations Ordinance, 1952 (no. 2 of 1952).

(66) The Pitcairn Island Government Regulations (Amendment) Ordinance, 1953 (No. 2 of 1953).

(67) Claydon, para. 50, pp. 15-16.

(68) Claydon, paras, 52-59, pp. 16-19.

(69) Claydon, paras. 61-66, pp. 20-21.

(70) The Landing and Residence Ordinance, Chapter 2 of the Revised Edition; and the Adoption of Infants Ordinance, Chapter 8 of the Revised Edition; the Post Office Ordinance, Chapter 12 of the revised Edition; the Post Office Regulations, 1954 and the Pitcairn Island Government Regulations (Amendment) Ordinance, 1954 (No. 4 of 1954).

(71) Implemented by the Pitcairn Island Government Regulations (Amendment) Ordinance, 1954 (No. 4 of 1954).

(72) McLoughlin paras. 28-30. The principal defect in the system was the tendency on the part of some education officers to depart from their role as advisers and to assume more positive administrative functions.

(73) McLoughlin, paras. 81-89), pp. 50-53 for a detailed account of the discussions and Enclosure V for the recommended amendments.

(74) McLoughlin, para. 10, p. 6.

(75) McLoughlin, para. 8, p. 5.

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