31 Mar Samoa’s debt law sends mother and baby to Tafaigata.
A Letogo mother of nine, Tafiau, is in Tafaigata Prison serving 4 weeks as a civil prisoner under a Warrant of Committal for an unpaid debt. She is breastfeeding her two-month old baby and asked Tafaigata staff for her child to stay with her.
Tafiau’s sister-in-law Iupeli, told Samoa Planet that Tafiau had borrowed $200 from a couple in Vailele who operate a loan scheme offering small loans for interest rates of 20% per week.
“E kala i le lima kala le kului. A aikalafu lau kupe e 200 kala, e kokogi le 240 i le vaiaso lega. A misi loa, oga kului lea o le 80 kala i leisi vaiaso.”
In an exclusive interview with Samoa Planet, the Assistant Commissioner for Prisons and Correction Services, Ulugia Sauafea N. Aumua said that as detailed in Tafiau’s case file, a Warrant of Committal (WOC) was issued by the Registrar on the 22nd of March, 2016.
“This WOC under the proviso to advise the debtor that she owes $1,091 and should pay up to the court. Failure to do so means she would be placed in Tafaigata for four weeks.”
Ulugia explained that once a WOC is issued, then a person will often approach their creditor and try to arrange a payment plan, but once they fail in those payments, then they are taken to Tafaigata.
He does not know any other particulars of Tafiau’s debt situation or about what process police followed to take her to Tafaigata.
“I find it all quite sad, the way it was told in the media and the way the police dealt with it.”
There are currently 32 prisoners in the Women’s Prison at Tafaigata and 12 officers, including the Custodial Manager.
Ulugia stated that many of the women are there as civil prisoners on Warrants of Committal. Others are there for theft as a servant.
He agreed that the WOC process seemed unnecessarily harsh. “We also have quite a lot of men here on Warrants of Committal. Like for a debt of $700 and they have to come here for 7 days.”
“The thing is that even if they come to prison and then later they make arrangements for payment, they still need to pay the full amount. Being in prison doesn’t affect it at all.”
Civil prisoners like Tafiau are not considered criminal prisoners. But they do not have a separate wing and they are given the same treatment as the others at Tafaigata.
Samoa Planet asked what would happen if Tafiau’s debt were paid in full?
“She would be released. Immediately. As long as we receive the court order documents. If someone paid in full her money today, paid to either the creditor or the Court. Then the court will issue the notice to us.”
The Warrant of Committal process for a judgement creditor is outlined in the 1965 Judgement Summonses Act.
A WOC is the very last stage of enforcement proceedings and is preceded by a court process that is initiated when a creditor makes a statement of claim. According to one legal source, the process includes several opportunities for the parties involved to try and come to an agreement like a weekly payment plan.
The Attorney General, Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff, about to board a plane tonight, sent this reply to Samoa Planet’s questions about unpaid small debts resulting in prison time.
“As I understand it, these are civil matters (not involving government as its between borrower and lender) where the debt collector has an instructed lawyer and more often than not, the person in debt cannot afford a lawyer.”
Lemalu added, “I know there are lawyers who disagree with any power to issue a warrant for non-payment of debt.”
Iupeli confirms that her sister-in-law was unrepresented and could not afford a lawyer.