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The Plight that Deems Public Confidence in Ugandan Courts.

A cross section of justices of the Ugandan supreme court in session.

Courts are an important part of a democratic system and by default, they must function properly which is why there is a high level of confidence that is expected from the public and other institutions towards courts/judicial institutions. Judicial power like most other power is given on trust. Because of the guarantees given to judicial officers, the public demands accountability for the responsibility given. There must be a balance between the need for judicial officers to exercise autonomy in decision making and independence from external forces, as well as accountability to the community on the other.

Public confidence in the judiciary is promoted through judicial accountability, transparency in courts, adherence to the law, respect for judicial independence and exercise of integrity in courts. Judicial independence is no a privilege enjoyed by judicial officers but a right enjoyed by people when they invoke the jurisdiction of the courts seeking and expecting justice while Judicial accountability refers to judges being answerable for their actions and decisions to the community to whom they owe their allegiance. In 2017, trust in the Uganda Police Force dropped to 46% from 57%, while trust in the courts of the Judicature is at 47%, down from 62% according to the National Governance Peace and Security Survey 2017. It is incumbent for judicial officers to exercise a high level of integrity in the interest of the law to promote public trust in the judicial system. Public confidence in the Uganda Judiciary has gradually declined over the past years owing to several reasons but not limited to the following;

Influence of Court decisions by the other arms of government. Citizens express high levels of confidence in the judiciary when courts and judges perform well or behave independently from any external political influences. Opposition politicians such as Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine) of the People Power Movement, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change, and Nobert Mao of the Democratic Party, among many others, have on various occasions and in various fora questioned the independence of Uganda’s judiciary. Judicial independence is a pre-requisite to the Rule of Law, which is a bedrock of any democratic society and good governance.

Extra judicial punishments in Uganda continue to erode public confidence in the judiciary and the criminal justice system, as most inmates and suspects are subjected to state sponsored torture

Ugandan Opposition politician, Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, MP, while in detention, 2018. Courtesy Photo.

In 2014, the president cautioned the judiciary against granting bail to persons charged with capital offenses, warning that they risked provoking the army and the public. Most recently, following the delivery of the Constitutional Court ruling on the extension of term limits, the President made remarks ridiculing the presiding judicial officers for focusing more on procedure than substance. Such intrusion of the function of the judiciary jeopardizes the independence of the judiciary and reduces public trust in the judicial system. The president law Society in responding to the president’s comments noted that if the Judiciary cannot be relied upon to adjudicate cases impartially and following the law, without external pressures and influences, its role will then be distorted and the public’s confidence in the Judiciary will be undermined.

Delayed justice/prolonged cases and failure to protect individual rights: Justice requires that everyone be entitled to a fair, speedy and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal (Right to fair hearing), under the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The 2016 Annual Report of the JLOS Integrity Committee states the result of case backlog as follows: “There was a general complaint of delay in the disposal of cases across all courts leading to overstay of prisoners on remand, an increase in case backlog and a decline of public confidence in the justice system.” Delayed justice in Uganda is mainly caused by the low number of judicial officers. In some parts of the country, the number of judges and magistrates is not enough to handle matters expeditiously. As of January 2019, there were 11 Justices of the Supreme Court with a workload of over 7000 cases, 52 Judges of the High Court with a workload of over 63,143 pending cases.

The Chief Justice in his speech at the Annual Judges Conference 2019 noted that with such a number of pending, the workload per judicial officer stood at 1,214 cases requiring disposal of 101 cases per month and 5 cases per day for 22 working days a month which is humanly impossible.

The number of Chief Magistrates stood at 52 out of the 100 gazetted Chief Magisterial Courts, with over 66,885 pending cases. The inadequacy of judicial officers greatly affects the disposal of matters which results in delayed justice affecting access to justice impinging public confidence in the judiciary and the right to a fair and speedy trial (components of the right to a fair hearing).

Failure to protect and promote human rights by judicial officers in Uganda has also undermined public confidence in the judiciary. Due to the impracticability of judicial independence due to external influences especially when handling case with political components or case involving Human Rights activists and members of the opposition political parties, judicial officers in Uganda are forced to acquiesce in a variety of injustices instead of protecting citizens’ liberties, promoting and protecting human rights.

Different laws have been enacted in Uganda some of which place barriers onto the public making it hard for people to exercise their human rights. For example, the Public Order Management Act with provisions limiting the enjoyment of freedom of assembly has seen many convictions of most human rights activists, members of the opposition and public protesters. Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East Constituency Robert Kyagulanyi has faced multiple arrests and beatings by security agents and charges of holding an illegal assembly as well as protesting against the tax on the use of over the top social media platforms. Dr. Kizza Besigye who has unsuccessfully run against Museveni in four presidential elections since 2001 has also been arrested several times and tortured. Citizens place their trust in the judiciary to protect and promote their rights amidst such laws enacted by the parliament with malice and when their rights and freedoms are not protected by the Courts, the public loses trust in the judiciary.

We continue this discussion in the next posting on this plight. Would be great to hear your thoughts, thus far…