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Judges attack Parliament

SOLOMON MUYITA KAMPALA JUDGES yesterday said they are underperforming largely because Parliament and the executive are frustrating them. More than 50 judicial officers told the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Commission in Kampala yesterday that much as they are under fire for alleged non performance, they are not to blame. They said Parliament and the executive are responsible for their poor remuneration, insufficient human resource and delays in appointment of judicial officers – the last two being the leading contributors to the huge back-log of cases.

They also blamed Parliament for making vague and insensitive laws. DON’T BLAME US: Justices Mwangushya (L) and Kiryabwire during the meeting yesterday. Photo by Stephen Wandera “Seventy per cent of the causes of case back-log in the Judiciary lie in the Executive and Parliament,” Justice David Wangutusi, who heads the Judicial Training Institute, said. “The systems in place and some laws do not help, but only build more cases in the court system, yet the Judiciary has no control over some of the things.” He cited the law on defilement, the most common crime, which requires the offence to be handled by the High Court, but that nothing is being done to increase the number of judges. “Defilement is a simple case but because of the law, it is the greatest contributor to case backlog and contributes two-thirds to the congestion in prisons,” said Justice Wangutusi. But Parliament Speaker Edward Ssekandi defended his institution. “It seems those people don’t know how laws are made. The process is initiated by the executive and before that happens, there is nothing much we can do,” he said. Justice Ministers Khiddu Makubuya and Freddie Ruhindi neither answered their phone calls nor returned calls to Daily Monitor for comment.

The APRM Uganda chairperson, Mr Elisha Semakula, said the commission is compiling a report on Uganda to be reviewed in January 2008 at the African Summit. A team of judges, registrars and magistrates, led by Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki and his deputy Laetitia Kikonyogo, accused their sister arms of government of interfering with their independence. The APRM heard that the existing Judicial officers have capacity to handle 9,000 cases a year, but that there are over 18,000 people awaiting justice in prisons alone. High Court Land Registrar Masalu Musene cited contradictions in the land law that have existed for years and questioned why it has taken Parliament so long to resolve the issue. “Land is a hallmark – it is the basis of survival for the people. But right now, we are at cross-roads. There is a crisis and we don’t know what Parliament is doing,” he said. High Court Judge Eldad Mwangushya cited examples of laws on succession and divorce that were nullified by the Constitutional court months back, but that Parliament is yet to debate new laws. He said there is no law on guardianship in the country. “Parliament is sleeping. Let Parliament wake up, otherwise, the judges have a big problem,” he said. Justice Odoki advised Parliament to seek technical advice while making laws to avoid the common problems it faces. “Parliament’s competence is in question, but let them not feel shy about it. Let them use consultants and experts,” he said while Supreme Court Justice John Wilson Tsekooko said the government has done little in terms of strengthening the professional staff in the Judiciary. “You cannot promote rule of law when you have insufficient manpower,” he said. “This is a real crisis. I don’t know how we (judges) are expected to dispense justice without the appointment of the personnel – we cannot understand what the appointing authority is doing.” He gave an example of the Supreme Court where a judge died and another retired, but that it has taken President Yoweri Museveni over one year to appoint replacements. “We have a number of sensitive constitutional appeals pending resolution, like the petition on the sentencing of capital offenders. The trial judges are in a quagmire, they don’t know what to do but we equally can’t do much until the judges’ replacements are made so that the court can hear the appeals.” Justice Kikonyogo said she was opposed to plans to create a special court on corruption. “It means we shall be corrupt forever. Why don’t we facilitate the ordinary courts to do that work?” she said. She, however, noted that interference in Judiciary work is limited.

“On the whole, we are not influenced like people think. We are independent, just that there are issues of poor remuneration and things of the sort.” Commercial Court Judge Geoffrey Kiryabwire said there is need for reform. “There is need to reform the system to promote Alternative Dispute Resolution, reconciliation and mediation which bring about a win-win situation. It is already working out in the commercial cases where we are encouraging people to talk more before suing,” he said. The meeting heard that there are plans to increase access to justice through the introduction of Small-Claim’s Court, where one will be able to sue even without assistance of a lawyer. “There are cases like rent claims where someone is demanding about Shs2.4 million. In such cases, people should be able to get judgement in 45 minutes and this will ensure good use of their time,” Mr Kiryabwire said.