BY the time you read this article the bar (lawyers) and bench (judges) will have returned to court chambers for official business after their two-week strikes. We need to assess what they achieved in light of their demands.
We need to assess what they achieved in light of their demands.
As we stare down into the eyes of the executive, it is imperative that we do the same to parliament and judiciary or we risk another oligarchy.
Regrettable as the events that led to this near paralysis were, the reaction of the bench and lawyers in private practice exposed huge holes in our judicial system, which needs to be dealt with.
These two weeks also proved that actually judges and private lawyers are not an absolute necessity all the time for society to function properly, and as such they are just a legal convenience. It was a relief when last Friday Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki said that at least 90 percent of cases in the magistrates courts are not handled by lawyers.
In general terms, the strike by lawyers in private practice was a punishment to their own clients from whom they collect obscenely exploitative amounts in legal fees, and so they could not hold out for too long. It is for their immediate personal interest and survival that they returned to court chambers.
The official reasons given by both the bar and bench for their actions were that the executive had repeatedly violated with impunity the courtâ€™s sanctity, procedures, and orders, and thereby threatened to undermine the rule of law.
They then demanded that government (executive) â€œissues a comprehensive statement on this atrocious incident and unprecedented eventâ€.
They also asked the executive to apologies for these events, give assurances that these incidents would not be repeated, and prosecute the security personnel involved. For apology, President Yoweri Museveni declined and gave a categorical no, although he â€œregretted the incidentsâ€ which he blamed on all the parties involved. Apart from meeting the leaders of the judiciary, Museveni sent an official letter making undertakings that government will always respect court decisions.
From the written words it is doubtable that Museveniâ€™s letter means, implies or even guarantees a non-repetition of such â€œcriminal, and atrocious acts of affront to the integrity and independence of the judiciaryâ€ because the judiciary set a very high bar that possibly only God the Almighty can guarantee.
How can Museveni tell or know that in future security operatives will not violate court procedures in some remote place like Kotido or that a thief could easily run into court chambers and he or she is sought out? It is striking that there are many and very close similarities in actions taken by opposition MPs, judges, and the Uganda Law Society (ULS) with regard to the Peoplesâ€™ Redemption Army (PRA) suspects.
When opposition MPs boycotted parliament sittings for 20 days last month following the re-arrest of these suspects they claimed their actions were not prompted by that incident but that it was a result of cumulative maladministration, which they saw as a threat to the rule of law. The judiciary and ULS have cited the same reasons, side-stepped directly linking their actions to PRA suspects, and in each case the â€˜aggrievedâ€™ demand that their views are taken as the sole truth without any question or further investigations!
The ULS has in addition claimed that their action is also because they have been routinely prevented or obstructed by state officials from enforcing court decisions particularly where judgement debts and attachment of property are concerned. While some aspects of this allegation may be true, it is doubtful that the ULS is genuine, otherwise they have recourse the same courts that issue orders and warrants of attachment.
Strangely though is the fact that the ULS has not taken action over Ugandaâ€™s junk justice system which is breaking down and not delivering substantive justice at all, where in many cases hearings were completed four years ago but judges havenâ€™t written or delivered judgment to-date, which in my opinion is a more serious issue. As at the time the judges declared their strike, central and local government prisons had over 14,000 prisoners on remand some of them on petty crimes which the judiciary should have expedited but chose not to.
Court records indicate that there are over 800 cases pending before the Commercial Court and that it takes on average eight months to resolve a commercial dispute, which directly frustrates investor and business confidence in Uganda.
This huge backlog of cases is a serious indictment and blight on the judiciary especially when most judges work leisurely, play golf during working hours, and take vacation whenever they want without serious performance benchmarks. It is a more serious threat to the rule of law, human rights, justice and personal liberties than one time infraction on court premises by security personnel as they want us to believe.
It is necessary for government to re-think an earlier proposal to have a separate body to audit the work of the judiciary although as usual the critics will be quick to allege that judicial independence will be under threat.
In the meantime government should consider hiring on contract a massive number of judges and magistrates for a non-renewable period to clear the backlog, and the substantive establishment deals with the new cases.
What did the Judiciary achieve through the strike?