Prof Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza, a justice of the Supreme court, is demanding Shs 150m in damages from the Judiciary for failure to reimburse her for two separate trips to USA and South Africa.
In a notice of motion issued on August 12, the lady justice has asked for leave to file an application for judicial review against the attorney general and the secretary to the Judiciary, Pius Bigirimana, after the latter refused to refund the money she claims is her entitlement for the two trips.
On his part, Bigirimana maintains he needs clearance from the solicitor general before committing any payments because the travels were at the instance of the host institutions and funded by them without advance knowledge of the accounting officer.
“At no moment did the Judiciary give its stamp approval to any element of financial implication that justice Ekirikubinza’s travels would have on the budget ceilings for entitled officers; travel expenses abroad,” reads part of his letter to the solicitor general.
In May 2018, former chief justice Bart Katureebe granted Ekirikubinza permission to travel to the USA for a 14-day course after noting that the trip was fully sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Before departure, however, Ekirikubinza claims in an affidavit that she informed Expedito Kagole Kivumbi, then secretary to the Judiciary, that the $373 daily allowance plus the economy class ticket allocated to her by the organisers was not commensurate with the $570 daily upkeep and business class ticket that she is entitled to as a Supreme court judge.
She further noted that she was to incur $3,603 in tuition fees as well as an unspecified amount on ground travel.
“Kagole Kivumbi advised me that since the Judiciary was at the time financially constrained, I should use my personal funds which would be refunded on my return.”
Later that year, Ekirikubinza was invited to attend a Specialists Human Rights Course in Cape Town, South Africa. Yet again, she claims Kagole advised her to use her own funds to upgrade her ticket to business class plus other out-of-pocket expenses.
After she returned, Kagole paid her Shs 24.5m in January 2019, leaving an outstanding balance of $8,668 (Shs 34.5m).
Change of guard
In July 2019 when Pius Bigirimana replaced Kagole, Ekirikubinza says she approached the former to fulfil the payment but he did not respond.
Instead, Bigirimana noted that not only were her courses overseas fully sponsored by organisers, but there was no harmonisation of her travels with the financial implication element to his accounting mandate as the accounting officer.
“Except for the chief justice’s clearance that lady justice Ekirikubinza’s travel would have zero financial implication on the budget ceilings, I have not come across any document to show she made any use of formal budgeting, expenditure and accountability process of the Judiciary to bring her scheduled travel in conforming to the due process,” he wrote to the solicitor general.
“In those circumstances, I respectfully decline to commit public funds towards an unauthorised public errand by justice Ekirikubinza.”
It was at this point that Ekirikubinza involved her lawyers after noting the “callous conduct” of Bigirimana in refusing to sanction the payment.
In the affidavit, she says Bigirimana conducted himself in the callous, harsh, oppressive and unconstitutional manner.
“I’m therefore entitled to exemplary damages for which, considering my status in society, I suggest Shs 100m as reasonable compensation,” she says.
“That my children had returned to college and I desperately needed funds to clear their dues, it caused me apprehension and anguish, of which I’m entitled to general or punitive damages I estimate at Shs 50m,” she says.
So, with the judge demanding Shs 150m in total, this judicial review case could have a longstanding effect on the financial rights and emoluments of judges but could also expose the loopholes within the judicial system, especially in regards to prioritisation of duties.
“Senior judges need protection and should not be seen to beg for what is entitled to them,” said a judicial officer who didn’t want to be mentioned because he does not speak for the institution.
“This is a simple matter that shouldn’t have escalated this far.”
On the other hand, a senior lawyer who preferred anonymity says many senior judges spend a lot of time on travels abroad for individual “refresher courses,” thereby slowing down the judicial process that leads to the huge case backlog.
“Many of these courses aren’t really necessary and, at best, can be attended via Zoom, but many judicial officers opt to travel because there is a lot of financial gain while at the same time less work,” she said.
Meanwhile, the case also highlights the reasoning behind Kagole’s interdiction last year after he failed to produce documentary evidence regarding his undertakings involving senior judicial officers.