Postcard from… Port Moresby

Greetings from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, the country which is often referred to as the “land of the unexpected”. 

Originally from New Zealand, I decided nearly four years ago to pack my bags and head on the usual overseas experience to the United Kingdom via Papua New Guinea.  Why PNG you may ask? That’s a good question.  In response, my parents (also originally from New Zealand) came here nearly 20 years ago with my father taking up an appointment on the bench as a judge of the National and Supreme Courts from which he has since retired.

Upon coming to Port Moresby, I was presented with an opportunity to work at Blake Dawson in its Port Moresby office. I duly accepted the offer and proceeded with the somewhat arduous process of studying (again) in order to sit exams through the University of Papua New Guinea which all overseas lawyers are required to undertake prior to being admitted to the bar. I eventually passed the exams and it was a pleasure to have my father admit me to the bar in PNG on 20 March 2006.

Naturally, most lawyers are Papua New Guinean and come from all of PNG’s 19 provinces. Foreign lawyers are restricted from practising unless they have met the requirements under the Lawyers Act to practice in PNG.

PNG gained independence on 16 September 1975 and has its own Constitution and laws which are enforced by independent judges in the National and Supreme Courts.  It also adopted as its “underlying law” the common law of England as at Independence, except to the extent that it is inapplicable or inappropriate to the circumstances of PNG. 

Practising law in a country where there are over 800 different languages and significant cultural and educational differences brings with it certain challenges.  However, it is the people who continue to amaze me in their ability and enthusiasm to assist you in relation to whatever challenges arise in the workplace with a warm and welcoming smile, despite any serious challenges which they themselves may face in their own lives. 

Most expatriates tend to live on the hilltops overlooking the harbour either in houses or apartments in enclosed compounds.  Some compounds are a village in their own right with shared swimming pools, tennis courts, barbeque areas and other shared facilities.  Most compounds have 24-hour security and back up water and power facilities.

Out of work time and on the weekend, most people head down the Yacht Club (the Yachty) to have a few cold beverages or take to the crystal clear water on boats either fishing, diving, wakeboarding or kite surfing depending on the wind. There are also various other islands which one may head out to for the day including Local Island and Fishermans Island (or Fishos as it is known locally).  The water is also popular with the local people who sail lakatois, paddle canoes or use banana boats to fish or swim in the sea.  There is also an 18 hole golf course, although you need to watch out for crocodiles if you hit your ball anywhere near the water.

There are also lots of Australians and Kiwis living here so when the rugby is on there is no shortage of banter and people to give you a hard time depending upon who won or lost on the day.

While there is no denying that it is necessary for everyone to take precautionary security measures due to the high crime rate and high incidences of car-jackings or “hold-ups” at the hands of “raskols” a rather quaint pidgin term for a criminal, what perhaps is more concerning is the increasing incidents of high-level crime including the kidnapping of company executives or bank employees in exchange for ransom money, planned bank robberies and the recent escape of prisoners from the maximum security jail.

However, despite its crime and security issues, Papua New Guinea is resource rich in gold, copper, oil and petroleum and there is no sign of a recession resulting form the global financial crisis as there is in the rest of the world with construction booming and the imminent construction of the Exxon Mobil led PNG LNG Project. There is also no shortage of legal work including commercial and litigation work as there are many disputes over land (97 per cent of which is customarily owned). In addition, there is the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of work and claims which you may not necessarily be exposed to in countries like New Zealand, Australia or the United Kingdom. 

Port Moresby is certainly a challenging but rewarding place to live and after a while you certainly learn to expect the unexpected.

Kate Sheehan is a lawyer in Blake Dawson’s Port Moresby office.