By Emmy Allio
and Hillary Kiirya
The judiciary has embarked on a radical reform programme to overhaul Ugandaâ€™s legal system to check delays in court processes.
Justice James Ogoola, heading the reforms, said his mission was to remove the obstacles of the old legal system like excessive delays.
â€œIt has over-relied on the adversarial method of resolving disputes. One party is pitted against another in mortal combat,â€ he said.
The principal judge said he was introducing reform of the legal system to restructure the delivery of judicial service. The key points in the reform are:
High Court Divisions
The judiciary has now five divisions, namely Criminal, Commercial, Civil, Family and Land. The High Court will be the basic, the administrative and professional unit of these divisions.
Each division will have substantial measure of autonomy with an independent registry headed by a registrar.
The head of each division will exercise independence in decision-making, allowing the principal judge to intervene on specific issues. Ogoola said, â€œIn effect, I have cut down on my powers. There has been too much power concentrated in my office.â€ Each division registry will establish working space, filing and individualised case numbering systems.
The programme involves specialised re-training for judicial officials. The exercise aims at producing specialised staff for the particular divisions.
Details of the Division
The five divisions have been created for efficient delivery of legal services. Ogoola said the reforms are an expansion of the Commercial Court division that started as a pilot scheme. Land matters, previously handled by the civil division, will get an exclusive division.
The Land Division will oversee operations of land tribunals, which have been under the Ministry of Lands. The division will adjudicate disputes over land ownership, rental, boundary demarcation, purchase, sale and registration.
It controls mineral rights, environmental issues and appeals from the tribunals. On December 15, 2004, Justice Moses Mukiibi, was named head of the Land Division.
The Family Division is headed by Justice Eridad Mwangusya and deputised by Lady Justice J Magezi. Margaret Tibalya is the registrar. It will have enhanced jurisdictions.
The Civil Division has been substantially altered. Judge Stella Arach Amoko heads it. Justice John Bosco Katutsi turned down his appointment as her deputy. Its registrar is P. Gadenya. Other judges include Vincent Kagaba, Okumu-Wengi, Opio-Aweri and Oguli Oumo.
The Criminal Division keeps its jurisdiction. It has Justice ES Lugayizi as head, with CA Okello as deputy. All other judges apart from those from the Commercial Division can hear criminal cases. R Byaruhanga is the registrar. Justice Ogoola said the over-reliance on technicalities in Civil and Criminal Procedure Rules that deny justice to litigants will be discouraged.
The Commercial Division, established under Legal notice No 4 of 1996, determines issues in company, bankruptcy and intellectual property laws.
Headed by Justice Egonda-Ntende and deputy Yorakamu Bamwine, the division has registrars J E Keiterima and H Haduli. Other judges include Justices L. N. Mukasa and G. Kirabwire.
What is being reformed?
Ogoola said the judiciary has often been bogged down with an archaic system and â€œit has relied on one brand of dispute resolution-litigation. He said the method was one where the winner takes all.
â€œThe current system does not deliver actual justice. Instead, it pits one party against another in moral combat. Each party hides its facts and battle plans from the other and even from the court in a bid to knock out the opponent by sheer surprise attack and excessive manipulation of the technical rules.
â€œIt has excessive delays, increased litigation expenses and over-reliance on formalism and technicalities at the expense of substantive justice,â€ he said.
Ogoola said, â€œduring my tenure as principal judge, we shall explore substantive reform of the existing systems, with a view of restructuring innovation in the delivery of judicial service.â€
He said he will pursue the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), which has been â€œsuccessfully experimented at the Commercial Court for over seven years.â€
ADR will now be applied in all the divisions and upcountry circuits of the High Court, before being taken to all Magistratesâ€™ Courts.
He said under ADR, victims in criminal cases will have a say before a judge passes a sentence. ADR is most applicable in cases where victims are willing to forgive or seek higher sentences.
â€œWe are looking at a system where parties leave the courtroom happy. The judges will have to play a more assertive role to encourage dialogue,â€ he said.
He said in the Commercial Division, ADR increased case disposal rates; drastically reduced litigation costs and saved a substantial amount of time, both for the litigants and their lawyers.
â€œIt has tremendously increased the per capita volume of cases handled by the advocates and the litigants,â€ he said.
The reform has already been hit by difficulties including shortage of judges like Katustiâ€™s rejection of appointment; Justice Julia Ssebutindeâ€™s taking up of a foreign assignment and Justice Faith Mwondhaâ€™s appointment as Inspector General of Government (IGG).
A lot of funds will be required for the project. The old habits of judicial officers stands in the way to the results. Ogoola told of a lawyer who handled a case for nearly 30 years. During that time, he educated his son, who also became an advocate and was employed in the fatherâ€™s firm. One day, the young advocate came home and told his father that he had at last disposed of the 30-year-old case.
Clearly angered, the father blasted the son; â€œYou fool. What have you done? Do you know what educated you? Do you know how we put up this house? That case has been our life!â€
Ogoola said that old habits of advocates and judges is the main challenge awaiting him.