The Court of Appeal has opened a criminal session in Mbale which is to offset a backlog of 50 cases that have been accumulating and pending for the last years.
A panel constituted by three High Court judges has set off to work for 31 days in a session meant to dispose of these cases including; 44 of murder, four for aggravated defilement, one for robbery and another for manslaughter.
The judges are Lady Justice Elizabeth Musoke, Justice Cheborion Barishaki and Justice Paul K. Mugamba.
The Greater Mbale area covers appeal cases raised from the districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa, Bududa, Bulambuli, Kapchorwa, Bukwo, Kween, Tororo, Busia, Palisa, Budaka, Butaleja and Kibuku.
Speaking during the opening of the session at Mbale High Court, deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma said the Constitutional Court has offered to hold regional court sessions to cut costs for both appellants and the judiciary.
"That is partly why we have decided to come and conduct another criminal session here instead of the usual practice where all criminal appeals were heard from Kampala," said Kavuma, drawing applause from advocates, lawyers and some assorted members of the public that had congregated at Mbale High Court.
In the recent past, the Court of Appeal has also held criminal sessions in Gulu, Fort Portal, Mbarara and Arua and the one opened in Mbale on Monday is the second in the region.
Justice Kavuma said that given the availability of the necessary resources, the court is also looking to holding civil sessions at regional level.
The deputy Chief Justice however noted that much as the Constitutional Court now has 13 justices, it still faces a challenge of heavy backlog of cases that he said accumulated before the additional justices were appointed.
He said for instance, due to the fact that the Court of Appeal is busy handling election petition litigation of petitions numbering to more than 100, as a result the Constitutional Court was forced to adjust other cases.
The Court of Appeal is also bogged down with large numbers of stale appeals that have for long stagnated due to lack of court records from the High Court.
"Over 500 or so appeals emanating from this region fall in this category," said Kavuma, demanding that immediate steps to rectify "this undesirable situation" be made "so that such cases are properly shown the exit from the criminal justice systems".
He directed that now that there is a criminal session taking place in the region for the next one month, a physical count of the files mentioned is undertaken.
Reconstitute village courts
Kavuma expressed concern that the absence of village and parish local council courts has left a significant void in the justice system in Uganda. He advised that local council courts should be reconstituted and operationalized as this will help reduce disputes and inflow of cases into the formal courts.
On land cases, he admitted that the settlement of cases has not been at its best as the courts have been focusing on clearing old cases, allowing recent ones to amass.
"We need to assess the system in relation to non-criminal matters and find more appropriate and effective ways of improving the disposal of these [land] cases."
Meanwhile, court advocates have lauded the Court of Appeal for extending its services at regional level.
Enock Samson Kyabakaya, the chairperson of advocates in Mbale for Uganda Law Society, told the deputy Chief Justice that seeking justice at the Court of Appeal in Kampala has been very expensive.
Kyabakaya asked the judiciary to set up permanent regional court of appeal centers to ease the accumulating number of cases. He also implored the judiciary to expedite the process of putting in place the pending Tororo High Court which he said would ease administration of justice in Busia and Greater Bukedi as well as the nearby magisterial areas.
On the other hand, Zandya Mutwalib Zandya the Mayor for Mbale Municipality simply appreciated the judiciary for taking the Court of Appeal nearer to the people.