Court procedure is patterned after practices in British courts. Samoan custom is taken into consideration in certain cases. English is the official language of the court, but Samoan is also used. The supreme court has full civil and criminal jurisdiction for the administration of justice in Samoa. It is under the jurisdiction of the chief judge, who is appointed by the head of state, acting on the advice of the prime minister. The court of appeal consists of three judges who may be judges of the supreme court or other persons with appropriate qualifications.
Magistrates' courts are subordinate courts with varying degrees of authority. The highest, presided over by the senior magistrate, may hear criminal cases involving imprisonment of up to three years or cases involving only fines. The land and titles court has jurisdiction in disputes over Samoan land and succession to Samoan titles. Samoan assessors and associate judges possessing a good knowledge of Samoan custom must be present at all sittings of the court. Lawyers are not permitted to appear in the land and titles court; each party appoints its own leader, usually a chief or an orator. Court decisions are based largely on Samoan custom.
Some civil and criminal matters are handled by village " fonos " (traditional courts) which apply a considerably different procedure than that used in the official western-style courts. The Village Fono Law of 1990 affords legal status to the decision of the village fono and allows appeal from fono decisions to the lands and titles court and to the supreme court. In July 2000, the supreme court ruled that the Village Fono Law could not be used to infringe upon villagers' freedom of religion, speech, assembly, or association.