On 28th February 2013, the rest of the country will join the legal fraternity to mark the annual Probono day organized by Uganda Law Society. The celebrations will be held across the country at the districts of Kampala, Kabale, Jinja, Mbarara, Gulu, Soroti, Arua, Kabarole, and Masindi. Among others, it is a time to reflect on issues pertinent to access to justice for all reason why all the Lawyers present will offer free legal services to the public on that day.
The Ag. Chief Regsitrar, H.P Adonyo has released a circular to all courts in the country requesting all the judicial officers to adjourn all the cases coming up on 28/02/2013 to any other convenient dates to allow Advocates attend this important function.
This would not have come at a better time. When a prisoner who had hope for presidential mercy slices off his penis in protest of prolonged detention and other hundreds of detainees, outraged by their names missing on the high court shortlist go on rampage in Lira prison, you don’t need to look further for it to dawn on you that indeed our judiciary is sailing through hard times.
We currently have an acute shortage of judicial officers and unnecessarily excess legislators. In the High Court, we have only 40 instead of the required 50 Judges. In my considered opinion, we actually need over 80 Judges. Court of Appeal has only 5 Judges out of the required 13. The Supreme Court has only 4 Judges out of the required 11. The situation worsens at the magisterial level. These are serious quorum issues that cannot just be wished away in the name of shortage of resources. This point has justifiably for long been emphasized by the President of Uganda Law Society, James Mukasa Sebugenyi.
For me, the big question is whether this country needs more legislators than judicial officers. The existence of 382 Members of Parliament which dwarfs the population of judicial officers nullifies the argument of shortage of funds. As a country, we need to get our priorities right. The existence of rule of law depends on the existence of a sound judiciary system.
Pre-trial detention is also increasingly becoming a form of extra-judicial punishment in Uganda. Pendency for long periods is often manipulated and used as an engine of oppression. It has become the obscene trademark of our ineffective criminal justice system. According to Commissioner General of Prisons, Dr. Johnson Byabashaija, Uganda Prison Services has an obscene congestion rate of 250% where 52% of inmates are awaiting trial and 48% are convicts. No wonder he blames the judiciary for the congestion in prison.
The right to a speedy trial is an ancient liberty and it’s breach contravenes Article 28 of the Constitution. It leads to an unavoidable inference of prejudice and denial of justice.
During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), the Assize of Clarendon was promulgated which inter alia guaranteed speedy justice to all litigants. On 15th June 1215, King John of England was prohibited from delaying justice to any person by the coming into force of the Magna Charta. In 1974, Congress of the United States enacted the Speedy Trial Act of 1974. Perhaps we need such an Act in Uganda as well to enhance Article 28 of the Constitution.
In addition to legally forcing government to appoint judicial officers to enforce this Act, the Speedy Trial Act in Uganda would also address key issues such as ensuring that trials don’t take too long to commence which will limit incidents of witnesses disappearing or losing interest in cases, stop prolonged pre-trial detention which often affects the suspect’s family relations, injury of reputation, interruption of employment, physical and physiological suffering etc. It will also address “delays” in trials which is an unacceptable old-fashioned known defence tactic.
In the interim, the executive ought to accord judiciary the attention it deserves. Sufficient judicial officers should be recruited. Government should also consider hiring temporary acting judicial officers from the pool of senior lawyers to dispose off these cases.
Justice should not be pushed to the ‘black market’ where money and political power rules. Whichever way you look at it, there can be no justification to deny an accused a speedy trial.
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