Aretana makes Tevita feel comfortable before attending his court case. (Photo: UNDP)

His name was called at the doorstep of the Magistrates Court. Tevita went into the courtroom and stood in front of the judge. There were brief exchanges between the prosecutor, lawyer and the judge in the quiet room. 

Tevita has been dealing with mental health conditions, which he is unable to control at times - At one occasion, he got into a fight with his cousin, which resulted in his cousin getting injured. 

Everything happening in court was unfamiliar to him. He pulled all his strength to stand himself up and tried to concentrate on what was happening in front of him. He stood by himself, but he knew he was not alone. Behind him in the courtroom were a few people who had come together to support him. 

A legal aid lawyer was representing him in court. After attending the court, he listened to the lawyer explaining what the judge had said, and the next steps forward including his next court appearance. He was also able to listen to a court translator in his language, Banaban, who is from the same island as Tevita, Rabi Island. 

Rabi Island is home to around 5,000 Banabans, who are originally from Banaba Island, part of the Republic of Kiribati. They are citizens of Fiji, with a distinct Banaban culture and language.

The President of the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation (FDPF) Rabi Branch, Aretana Kabure had accompanied Tevita in the courtroom. Aretana coordinated the legal aid assistance, logistics, reminded Tevita of the court date, and travelled together with him and his mother from the island. The FDPF Rabi Branch financially supported their travel, from their village on Rabi Island to the Magistrates Court. They hired a boat and pick-up truck to get there. Tevita’s appearance in court was critical, as he was also charged with absconding bail, and he would have failed to appear in court without the support provided by FDPF. 

“I feel good now. I was able to take a step to solve my case, and I thank the people supporting me,” Tevita said with a smile. 

More than 15 percent of the global population — over 1 billion people — are estimated to have a disability. In Fiji, 13.7 percent of the population aged three and above reported they have at least one disability, according to the 2017 Census. 

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that persons with disabilities face significant obstacles in accessing justice, including criminal proceedings and the determination of civil rights and obligations. These obstacles include denial of their legal standing and due process guarantees, and the inaccessibility of the physical and communication environments during proceedings. It also reported that defendants with psychosocial and intellectual impairments are often deprived of their right to be heard in person, pursue adversarial proceedings, and give evidence or contest witnesses.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Fiji is party, is the first international human rights instrument that enshrines an explicit right to access to justice. Article 12 of the Convention requires states to reaffirm that persons with disabilities have the right to recognition before the law, and under Article 13 to ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.

Aretana, who has disabilities on his right hand and spine, started exploring the needs of persons with disabilities by conducting a household survey on his island, Rabi, in 2012, which identified 50 persons with disabilities. It was a journey towards raising the awareness of people, forming a team of volunteers, and gaining support from the Rabi Council of Leaders, which is the municipal body administering Rabi Island in Fiji. The FDPF Rabi Branch was formally launched in November 2018. He and his team currently support over 150 persons with different types of disabilities residing on the island, and 99 persons among them were registered with the FDPF Rabi Branch. members with . The support includes providing vocational skills training, awareness raising, information sharing, and other social support like Tomasi’s case.

“I play a role in bridging access for people with disabilities in Rabi and the wider society, including service providers in the government and civil society. I share information and raise awareness on the issues important to our members in Rabi, such as social welfare, legal aid, and support from the FDPF and other NGOs, so that they know their rights and are able to exercise their rights.”  

The FDPF works both at policy level and in the communities, advocating for rights of persons with disabilities and providing various support essential to them. FDPF provides support through its 15 branches across Fiji, with its headquarters in capital Suva. It coordinates with affiliated organizations: United Blind Persons of Fiji; Spinal Injury Association; Psychiatric Survivors Association of Fiji; and Fiji Association of the Deaf.

FDPF focuses on access to justice for persons with disabilities with other civil society organizations in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji through Fiji Access to Justice Project, which is funded by the European Union (EU).

The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice for impoverished and vulnerable groups by empowering people to access their legal rights and justice services, as well as strengthening those key justice institutions and civil society to deliver improved services.

The project provides grants to civil society organizations, including FDPF, which enable them to strengthen their justice support services with focus on persons with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for promoting the rule of law and ensuring equal access to justice for all. Fiji government has an opportunity to implement Article 13 of the Convention as part of its strategy to accomplish the 2030 Agenda.

The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports Fiji people and government to achieve Goal 16 and Goal 5 to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

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