Two men stand in high court judge gowns and wigs.

Attempts to deport Kiribati High Court Justice David Lambourne back to Australia lead to airport stand-off

Attempts to deport a Kiribati High Court judge back to Australia have led to a lengthy airport stand-off, with Justice David Lambourne having since been placed in immigration detention.

Justice Lambourne is a long-time resident of the Pacific nation.

He was suspended from his job by the government in May over alleged misconduct.

On Thursday morning, he was served a deportation notice and taken to the airport in Kiribati’s capital Tarawa to be placed on a flight to Fiji.

However, an urgent application that his lawyers filed to the court of appeal prompted the court to order the Attorney-General to stop the deportation.

Despite the court order, police and immigration officers at the airport tried to force him to board the flight, according to Justice Lambourne and a local journalist present at the scene.

A stand-off was triggered when the government refused to let the plane depart unless the justice was on board, while the pilot of the Fiji Airways flight did not want him to board against his will.

After several hours, the government backed down and allowed the flight to leave without Justice Lambourne.

He has since been taken into immigration detention without a valid visa.

David Lambourne at Kiribati’s Bonriki International Airport awaiting deportation with his wife, opposition leader Tessie Lambourne outside.(ABC News: Rimon Rimon)

“I was fortunate that I had some very good lawyers who were able to make contact with the legal team at Fiji Airways,” Justice Lambourne told the ABC as he was being taken to detention.

“And once Fiji Airways was aware of the situation, they maintained their position — the correct position — that unless I was a willing passenger, they were not going to carry me.”

Still, Justice Lambourne suspects the government will make another attempt on Sunday, when a Solomon Airlines flight is due to depart Tarawa.

“[Let’s] see if they have more luck then,” he said.

Taneti Maamau, wearing a suit, sits at a desk.  Behind him are flags and paintings.
Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau has set up a tribunal which is investigating allegations made against Justice Lambourne.(AP: UN Web TV)

Justice Lambourne, who has lived in Kiribati for 27 years and is married to the leader of his opposition, Tessie Lambourne, was suspended in May after the government alleged he had failed to carry out his duties.

The government set up an independent tribunal, saying it had received complaints and allegations from the public against Justice Lambourne.

The allegations included “his inability to perform functions of his office and his misbehaviour,” a government statement said.

The government did not specify what the complaints or allegations were.

Last year, Justice Lambourne won a legal case against the government when he tried to refuse him entry back into Kiribati.

In June this year, when Chief Justice William Hastings was due to preside over an appeal made by Justice Lambourne, the government suspended Justice Hastings.

The suspensions have left Kiribati without a functioning high court.

The ABC has reached out to the Kiribati government for comment.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said the Australian government was “aware that suspended High Court [Justice] David Lambourne was served with a deportation order today and asked to leave Kiribati.”

“DFAT is in direct contact with Mr Lambourne and officials from the High Commission in Tarawa are providing consular assistance,” DFAT said in a statement.

“Our High Commission in Kiribati is monitoring the situation closely and has sought further information from the government of Kiribati.

“Due to our privacy obligations we cannot disclose further details.”