By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
As senior judges retire and others pursue greener pastures the courts are left hopelessly empty
As Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki prepares to retire next year and his deputy, Alice Mpagi Bahigeine, later this year, the delivery of justice in Uganda is hampered by staffing gaps in the judiciary. A new law passed by Parliament last year increased the number of judges in the three key courts, from 7 to 11 in the Supreme Court; 7 to 15 in the Court of Appeal; and 50 to 90 in the High Court. However, Parliament is yet to make a resolution approving the increases.
If the resolution is made, it implies that currently the Supreme Court is short by 5 justices, the Court of Appeal by 8 and the High Court by at least 45 judges.
This critical judicial staff shortage is complicated by the fact that absentee judges on domestic and internationational contracts outside the bench have remained on the roll of judges and are counted as available when they are not.
“Those who are no longer in judiciary are still on our roll,” says Erias Omar Kisawuzi, Registrar of the Constitutional Court and Spokesman for the judiciary. “For example Justice Solomy Balungi Bossa has been at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for the last 14 years but she is still on the roll, the same applies to Justice Egonda Ntende, who is now chief justice of Seychelles.”
Justice Irene Mulyagonja was recently appointed Inspector General of Government, a post she immediately took up, ceasing her services in the judiciary.
“Even when we are talking of the numbers we have in the judiciary we actually have less,” says Kisawuzi.
Last year the Chief Justice wrote to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) that 13 judges’ vacancies were open, but by February when the JSC was inaugurated, the posts were still vacant.
Others have retired and not been replaced, notably Justices Laetitia Kikonyogo, Seth Manyindo, James Ogoola, Galdino Magellan Okello, Patrick Tabaro and John Bosco Katutsi.
“Several judges are retiring this year,” Kisawuzi told The Independent, among them Justice Wilson Tsekooko.
“It’s not only in the Supreme Court. In the High Court we need 50 but have about 41 judges yet the optimal number should be at least 90 to enable us deal with the case backlog,” Kisawuzi said.
The staffing gaps have a negative impact on the delivery of justice. Some people have to trek long distances, wait a long time and pay a high price to get their cases heard.
A report issued by the JSC early this year said there was an estimated backlog of approximately 40,046 cases in the four critical areas of land, family, criminal and commercial justice, and named understaffing as one of the main causes.
However, JSC Secretary Kagole Kivumbi throws responsibility back to the Judiciary as the JSC recruits judicial officers depending on their submission.
While the Judiciary requires 500 judicial officers to function efficiently, currently it only has 295, according National Development Plan (NDP). To fill the deficit, the NDP calls for replacement of all retired Judges, those on commissions or international assignments, and an increase in the number of Grade One Magistrates, to increase they system-s capacity to deliver justice.
The JSC, which is charged with recruiting judges and forwarding names to the President for approval, had not been functioning for 14 months until February.
Besides staffing, the judiciary is grappling with other challenges like a limited budget and lack of permanent premises in most areas. Unlike Parliament, which has its own home as an arm of government, the judiciary suffers the misfortune of being perceived as only a department of government, instead of an autonomous arm, and has no permanent home. Kasawuzi told The Independent that at least Shs 2 billion is spent paying rent for courts annually, often putting the system in a complex conflict of interest when landlords end up before court.
“How do we dispense justice on our landlords?” Kisawuzi asked.
JSC-s Kivumbi says some progress has been made. He told The Independent that recruitment of the 5 justices of the Supreme Court was ongoing. Interviews were completed and names of successful candidates had been submitted to the President for approval.
Kivumbi said a list of 35 nominees to the Court of Appeal had also been submitted to the President and consultation with professional bodies was ongoing. Of the nominees, 15 were seasoned lawyers and high court judges.
He said the May recruitment of 39 Grade One magistrates had also covered 90% of the need in lower courts.
However, Kivumbi explained that part of the delay in the appointments was due to the involvement of diverse entities in the process.
“We need a delinking of the judiciary from the other arms of government so that we can appoint and manage the judiciary on our own,” Kisawuzi agreed.
Currently the appointment of the judges involves Parliament, the President and JSC, yet for 14 months the JSC was not working because it was not fully constituted until 4 months ago, so the process was stuck.
According to Kivumbi when it returned to work, the JSC found 300 complaints about judicial officers, half of which it has tackled, and hopes to complete by the end of the financial year.
A key complaint being investigated by the JSC concerns judges who don’t attend court sessions, worsening the existing case backlog and contributing to the inhumane congestion of prisons by suspects awaiting trial.