It is common practice to travel to courts for so many times only to chase a signature on summons or hearing notices
By Birungi Denis
An independent judiciary is a key component to a nation’s economic, social and political progress. To function effectively, the judiciary, as a third arm of government, requires not only adequate funding but also adequate staffing with qualified and ethical officials to dispense justice.
The judiciary has just released a full list of judicial officers, totalling to 399 as at November 2018. Of these, 78 are judges of Courts of record (High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court), 48 are Registrars and deputy Registrars, and 273 are Magistrates.
It is unimaginable that in a country of approximately 40 million people, there are only 399 judicial officers! This means the judicial officer- population ratio is 1: 100,250.6. By comparison, parliament has 450 MPs but its work doesn’t even require half that number yet the pay is exorbitantly handsome.
The implications of a poorly staffed judiciary are far-reaching. To the individual judicial officers, the workload is overwhelming but yet the pay is not motivating, paving way for corruption.
A poorly paid and overworked judicial officer is prone to corrupt tendencies, subverting the course of justice. Judicial corruption undermines the independence of the judiciary and erodes public confidence.
Those of us who use Courts know that justice is now for sale, mostly in lower Courts (Of course not all judicial officers are corrupt). From a Court clerk who will not serve you until you pay, to some Magistrates who will demand a bribe to deliver a ruling.
Most times, solicitation is not direct but implied in the conduct of an officer. Either you will unnecessarily be delayed or ignored until you realise you have to pay or you will be told to pay indirectly through corruption vocabulary. Words such as “speak nice words”, “facilitate me” or “start talking” (even when you are already talking) simply imply that you pay a bribe.
An independent and well-staffed judiciary is key to economic growth. It quickens enforcement of claims and boosts investor confidence. It is frustrating to businesses when
enforcement of claims takes years or where without a bribe, one cannot enforce a legitimate claim.
Due to case backlog, a claim filed today can be fixed for hearing late next year, and conclusion may take many more years.
But yet with the limited number of staff and inadequate funding some reforms could be made to speed up delivery of justice. Here are some proposals;
First, even as we await the e-filing system (which will of course not apply to all Courts due to technical challenges and lack of capacity), trivial roles such as signing summons, hearing notices, chamber summons, certifying court judgements etc can be relegated to well-trained non-judicial Court officials.
The administrative micromanagement in most Courts takes a lot of judicial time which should be spent on disposing cases. It also increases the cost of access to justice. Imagine travelling from Kampala to Kabale to file a suit, only to find you cannot go back with summons because they have to await signing by the Magistrate or Registrar who might be busy with other duties.
It is common practice to travel to courts for so many times only to chase a signature on summons or hearing notices. This involves extra cost to the litigant.
Second, there is need for clarify, on which documents require judicial officers’ signature. I have heard magistrates and registrars insisting that they cannot entertain an application where they have not signed on the notice of motion, whereas unlike a chamber summon, a notice of motion is a litigant’s document initiating a court action and doesn’t require a judicial officers signature. This time can be spent on dispensing justice.
Third, there should be an evaluation criteria based on the quality of judgements and number of cases disposed of. This should be a consideration when promoting judicial officers.
To the government, 399 judicial officers can be tripled or even quintupled and their salaries increased without much strain on the budget. As to salary increment, we could understand when it was teachers because they are hundreds of them. Judicial officers are just 399 and even if they were increased to 1000, the effect would be less.
Writer is a lawyer