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Court-system gets new humane face

`Chicken thief’ can be both a literal description of a crime and a metaphor of petty crimes often involving poor people. Unfortunately, it is such petty crimes that clog the judicial system and congest prisons.

In a judiciary that has fewer judges and magistrates and fewer and poorly distributed courts than are required to expeditiously hear all cases, they create a backlog of cases.

Litigants at Justice Centre Masaka waiting to be attended to.
Litigants at Justice Centre Masaka waiting to be attended to.

In April, the Acting Principal Judge, Yorokamu Bamwine, revealed that over 986 criminal cases have delayed to be heard. He said 254 of these are criminal cases in the High Court of Uganda. But the High Court requires 150 judges and has only 50.

In an attempt to tackle the problem, the judiciary has attempted many interventions. One of the most known was the so-called `Quick win’. Under this, a magistrate or judge was assigned a special area, and offered an agreed sum of money to dispose of an agreed number of cases over an agreed period, usually a month. All of them failed. Then the idea of mediation; settling cases out of court, was mooted.

To implement the mediation intervention, the government launched the Justice Centres (JCs) project under the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS). These are legal aid clinics.

They were established after the passing of a law to enable poor people; the so-called indigents, who may not afford commercial lawyers, get representation. The project aim was to ease case backlog at the courts and also reduce on the prison congestion.

There are eight Justice Centres across the country in Tororo, Mengo/Kampala, Masaka, Jinja, Fort/Portal, Hoima, Lira and Kitgum. A visit to any courts where the Centres are located exposes the magnitude of their contribution to reducing case backlog.

Today it is mandatory that before a case is taken to court, the two parties are given chance to settle the matter out of court. When they reach agreement, a memorandum is signed, a consent judgement is entered, and the case ends there.

Set up to ease case backlog, Justice Centers are showing how the poor can also get justice

Under this system, Justice Centres, appear to be working as The Independent discovered on a recent tour of the country.

“They work in partnership with all government agencies charged with dispensing justice,” says the Justice Centres spokesperson, Edgar Kuhimbisa.

Jonathan Tiyo is the Hoima Justice Centre manager at Hoima Magistrates court in Hoima District –which also covers Kibaale District.

Under Tiyo, the Center runs programmes that include creating legal awareness, offering legal representation, evidence based advocacy, and organising village sensitisation workshops (Baraza`s) for the locals on their human rights and how to access remedy in case they have been aggrieved.

“This is a continuous activity at the Justice centres unlike at the other legal aid centres that carry out such activity only once in a while,” Tiyo told The Independent. He explained that they work hand in hand with the organs of government charged with dispensing justice which include the police, the prisons and the courts.


Serving the poor

“Our key roles are ensuring people are not charged illegal fees to access justice,” he said, “We also see to it that people harmonise what their culture says and what the constitution says.”

He has a target of resolving 188 cases per year using mediation. By mid-April, when The independent visited, the Centre had resolved 150 cases and had 38 cases remaining to meet the target.

“Mediation ensures that the cases do not go into the court system and are solved, memorandums are signed and everyone is happy,” says Tiyo.

The mediation is done under the Prison Decongestion Programme (PDP) and handles petty cases. Guilty offenders in petty crimes are given community service sentences.

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