The Supreme court of Uganda, with a backlog of more than 700 cases, has not had a sitting of the full court since April 27, 2022 after a fire outbreak gutted part of the chambers of the chief justice.
But even before that incident, the judges and their clerks had routinely complained about rodent infestation, water leakages and collapsed ceilings at the dilapidated private premises in Kololo, among other hazards, which threatened the health and life of court users and damaged furniture, books and other court properties.
In a June 1 press release, we were informed of the decision of the ‘Judiciary Top Management’ to suspend the business of the top court indefinitely ‘to allow renovations take place...until the issuance of a certificate by the responsible authorities that the premises are safe for occupation.’
With respect, this decision is utterly bizarre and ill-advised. This is because the decision, on top of being wasteful, is also an act of profound self-negation. The idea that the operations of any court can be ‘suspended indefinitely’ is palpably absurd. That this would be the apex court is actually a scandal.
A house must have a roof, and a sentence must have a full-stop. Without a functional Supreme court, the Uganda judicial system is in a shambles!
As of November 2022, the top court bench consists of Chief Justice Alphonse Chigamoy Owiny-Dollo, Lady Justice Dr Esther Kisaakye Kitimbo, Lady Justice Stella Arach-Amoko, Justice Rubby Aweri Opio, Lady Justice Faith Essy Mwondha, Lady Justice Prof Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza, Lady Justice Percy Night Tuhaise, and Justice Mike Chibita.
This is a sufficient number to hear constitutional appeals (which require a quorum of seven), and both civil and criminal appeals (a quorum of five each). The minimum take-home pay (salary and benefits) of a justice of the Supreme court is Shs 30 million. For now, that comes to Shs 210 million per justice for no work done in the past seven months.
Collectively, that is more than Shs 1.7 billion thrown away by the taxpayer on esteemed members of the apex court who are continuing to earn without working (merely because there is a building being renovated) and yet there are several alternatives available to them had they desired to demonstrate initiative, fidelity and accountability. The very first and perhaps most obvious possibility would have been the digital route, had it not been for the fact that we are dealing with digital dinosaurs.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, all justices of the Court of Appeal and judges of the High court and the Industrial court have successfully experimented with a wide range of e-justice initiatives, including filing electronically and working remotely (operating effectively from home).
Magistrates, too, have pulled their weight by holding some arraignments, bail hearings and trials using the available e-justice facilities.
It is, therefore, unacceptable that the Supreme court, which should show leadership in digital transformation, has failed in its duty to implement the Constitution (Integration of ICT into the Adjudication Processes for the Courts of Judicature) (Practice) Directions 2019 as well as the Judiciary ICT Strategy (e-justice for all), which were both launched by former Chief Justice Bart M Katureebe and operationalized by the Judiciary ICT Committee headed by Justice Geoffrey Kiryabwire.
Besides operating digitally, the justices of the Supreme court should have looked at the practice of other branches of government, or their brethren. The Tax Appeals Tribunal offers its users the option of either an online or physical appearance, and is lauded for the fastest speed in resolving cases.
For some time now, Parliament House (established in the 1960s) has been undergoing renovation/reconstruction. Consequently, many parliamentary sessions have been held in a tent placed in their parking lot or at Kololo ceremonial grounds, either to minimize the spread of Covid-19, or simply to accommodate the large number of MPs and their guests, for instance at the occasion of swearing in the new legislature.
The National Identification and Registration Authority and Office of the President have also routinized the use of tents at Kololo ceremonial grounds to ensure unbroken delivery of services to the public. A session of the Supreme court would require just five or seven judges, some support staff, a few lawyers and their clients, and select representatives of the media and the public.
This number would clearly be under 100 people. How can the ‘Judiciary Top Management’ fail to find space in this country to accommodate 100 people pending renovation of the top court’s overly expensive Kololo-based premises?
In March 2021, the Supreme court sat under a tent placed in the parking lot at Kololo to hear the presidential election petition filed by Hon Robert Kyagulanyi. Using the Covid excuse; it continued to sit under the same tent to hear other cases until the said fire outbreak.
In 2017, the Constitutional court dramatically sat in Mbale High court premises to hear the age limit constitutional petition, and currently the Arusha-based East African Court of Justice is sharing working space with our Commercial court in the Nakasero premises of the latter.
It is surely possible to find many alternative cost-free venues for the Supreme court to sit in today, and serve the people of Uganda without excuse. If the judicial system is to deliver on its constitutional mandate, the example must be set from the top. What we are seeing here is not a good example.
Isaac Ssemakadde is the CEO, Legal Brains Trust, a Kampala-based democracy and human rights watchdog.