The New Ugandan Judiciary in the eyes of a media practitioner
By Solomon Muyita
About 15 years ago when I was assigned to cover the courts as a junior newspaper court reporter, I found a considerably thin, conservative and bureaucratic Judiciary.
There were fewer judges and other judicial officers, fewer facilities and financial resources. The system was substantially slow. Civil and criminal cases remained in the court system for many years and the system was highly unpredictable.
The Judiciary today, even as it still awaits the appointments of substantive Deputy Chief Justice (DCJ) and the Chief Justice (CJ), is much more vibrant and forward-looking.
Judges are now engaging in discussions of reforms, modernization, rebranding and ideologically positioning the institution to take on its responsibilities of contributing to economic, social, and political transformation of society based on rule of law.
The courts are increasingly working towards ensuring the safety of the persons and their property, protecting rights of all to engage in gainful development activities for the overall good of humanity.
The number of cases managed to completion by the various courts currently at over 130,000 cases a year-almost tripling the courts’ performance 15 years ago.
Working within the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) framework, the Judiciary has devised a number of innovative alternative mechanisms of dispensing justice to manage case backlog which for long was such a big problem. Improved case management has also impacted on the congestion problem in prisons.
At least 13 High Court Circuits, 7 High Court Divisions, 49 magisterial areas and District Court Circuit structures were established in the past few years to ease work and take justice delivery services closer to the people. The Court of Appeal has equally intensified holding of sessions outside Kampala and disposing of hundreds of pending cases in the countryside.
We expect to increase High Court circuits to 18, Magisterial Areas to 89, High Court Judges to 82 and Court of Appeal Justices to 32 as well as giving each district two magistrates.
More specialized courts have been established. Prominent examples include the Anti- Corruption Court whose establishment has significantly contributed to the fight against Corruption in the country. The Judiciary is collaborating with other agencies to automate processes in courts to weed out corrupt staff. Court registries are also being streamlined to enhance performance and accountability. Free legal aid programs are also being spearheaded to empower court users to help themselves.
The offices of the Chief Justice and the Principal Judge (PJ) have been leading top management teams on field inspections to enhance performance through improved support supervision.
That isn’t all. Judiciary as an institution has the following flagship creative approaches to harness delivery and access to judicial services:
Alternative Dispute Resolution: This is a mechanism through which all civil matters including land, family and civil are taken through mandatory mediation in line with the Judicature (Mediation) Rules 2013. The ADR initiative was designed to provide access to justice for vulnerable and marginalised people whose cases take long to be concluded in the formal justice system. The ADR initiative is being supported by the Austrian Development Cooperation. ADR is set to be rolled out from the Commercial Court to the High Court divisions, Magistrates Courts and to other sector dispute resolution bodies within JLOS including Judicial Service Commission, Uganda Human Rights Commission, Law Council, Directorate of Civil Litigation and the Administrator General’s Office.
Plea Bargain: This is another innovative mechanism that is already popular in the developed world – designed for the criminal justice system. A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and the accused person whereby the latter agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in return for some concession from the prosecutor.
A voluntary plea of guilt under this mechanism may see the number or severity of the charges against an accused person or their punishment reduced. Prosecutors encourage pleas of guilty under this programme to save time and resources for other cases and reduce the number of trials that judges need to oversee. It is also a chance to turn some accused persons into state witnesses.
Small Claim Procedure (SCP): This is another form of mediation in matters arising out of the supply of goods, debts and rent – not exceeding Shs10m. The parties to a claim are mediated by a judicial officer to reach a quick agreement, without involving lawyers, and without the agony of going through the usually lengthy and costly court process. Agreements from SCP settlements are executed like any other court order, except that there is no chance for appeal.
In his massage to Ugandans at the opening of the New Law Year last month, the Ag Chief Justice, Justice Steven Kavuma, among other things, said the Judiciary would be setting targets for the judicial officers aimed at reducing the case backlog. A High Court judge would be required to dispose of 230 cases a year. The target is 800 cases for a Chief Magistrate, 400 for a Principal Grade One Magistrate and 300 for Grade One and Grade Two Magistrates.
Other reforms this year would include electronic filing of cases (e-filing), expanding of the Magisterial areas, introduction of mobile money and banking services at courts for easy payment of bail fees by litigants and institution of guidelines on handling of bail terms by judicial officers.
Technological awareness was not a thing for judicial officers a few years ago despite efforts by the administration to procure computers for them. Most of the computer simply gathered dust as they remained covered and unused on their side tables for several months.
Today, our judges have laptops and tablets, especially the Justices of the Court of Appeal/Constitutional Court and Supreme Court although some of them still require training to use them for judicial work.
Besides, court proceedings especially in the courts of record (High Court, Court of Appeal, Constitutional Court and Supreme Court) are recorded and typed for the judges – a move that saved the judges the burden of taking notes throughout court sessions. Some of the courts, especially in Kampala, have standby screens and sound systems to facilitate submission of recorded evidence.
Gone are the days when the Judiciary used to operate on a meager Shs500 million a month. Much as it remains the least funded arm of the state (sharing 0.6 percent of the national budget), Judiciary’s monthly expenditure on both recurrent and development stands at Shs7 billion (84.4 billion for 2014/15 FY).
The current administration has tirelessly lobbied and attracted funding to the institution from government and development partners especially through the Budget Framework Paper in the JLOS Sector and funds are utilized with minimized audit queries.
The salaries for justices, judges and other judicial officers were increased this financial year and all retirees including judges and justices have had their gratuity promptly paid.
The structure was last reviewed in 1998 by the Ministry of Public Service (MoPS). The increasing demand for judicial services in the country, however, has brought about a number of reforms.
Since 2012, consensus building on the new structure for the Judiciary started to among other things provide for adequate human resources and unique administration – taking cognizance of what has been happening and the contemporary challenges in the delivery of justice.
The new structure – to support the appointment of more judicial officers as well as recruitment of relevant common-cadre staff for the Judiciary – is being fast-tracked for confirmation by the MoPS later this year.
Staff numbers currently stand at 1,414 – with 283 judicial officers (judges, registrars and magistrates) and 1,131 non-judicial staff. The workforce has been taken through at least 1,120 skills-related training sessions locally and internationally. The Judicial Studies Institute has been reinforced to facilitate judicial officers’ skills development.
The Judiciary is pushing for the appointment of 164 more judicial officers: Supreme Court (4), Court of Appeal (20), High Court (33), Registrars (17), chief magistrates (40) and grade one magistrates (50). Together with more 69 common-cadre staff expected to be recruited this year, the Judiciary total headcount will increase to 1,647.
Government last constructed court houses way back in the 1960s. But with support of development partners like DANIDA, USAID and JLOS, the Judiciary has managed to build various courts while government provides funds for their maintenance.
The Government funds have been utilized more towards rent of court premises to house the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and various High Court Divisions like Land, Civil, Anti-Corruption, the Family Court and the International Crimes Court. Government resources have equally been used to furnish, maintain and procure some equipment for a few courts.
Over the past 20 years, at least 89 court houses plus a number of judiciary administrative units have been built countrywide with support of the development partners. Recent projects include the construction of Justice Centres in Ibanda, Wakiso, Nwoya, Kiboga, Mityana and Lamwo; construction of court buildings in Kibuku, Amuria, Ngora and Bulambuli plus the completion of Makindye Family Court and Kabale High Court.
The institution has also tendered for Public Private Partnership (PPP) contractors for the construction of JLOS House project to be constructed within the High Court Complex in Kampala and will among others things house the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal.
2015 JUDGES CONFERENCE
Next week, the judges will be convening in Entebbe for this year’s Annual Judges Conference between February 22 and 26 under the theme: “The Role of the Judiciary in Transforming Uganda’s Society.”
Discussions will be around the role of technology in the administration of justice; judges’ role in promoting investment and development in Uganda; performance and change management, accountability, management of stakeholder relationships and management of election disputes ahead of the 2016 General Elections.
It is hoped that the judges will walk out of the meeting with a charter of reforms to make the Judiciary more efficient, effective and responsive to the development needs of Uganda. We also expect consensus on institutional and individual targets for the institution, partnership between the Judiciary and the private sector and improved relations between the arms of the government among others.
The writer is the Senior Communications Officer of the Judiciary