- Interview. The Judiciary has in recent times come under the microscope amid talk that the criminal justice system, that it serves, favours the rich and politically connected, a charge that the institution is at pains to deny. Isaac Mufumba sounded out the Principal Judge, Justice Yorokamu Bamwine, to throw some light on that and other matters around the Judiciary.
- Judicial officers strike. The issues are still obtaining. They decided to go back to work because government instituted a committee to look at the salary structure throughout the civil service. We advised the judicial officers to go back to work on the strength of that promise. They are coming back on February 12 to review the position.
You have been in office for seven years now? How would you describe the period?
It has been a great time serving the Judiciary and the people of Uganda in this capacity. I hope I will complete my tenure of office.
When are you due to leave?
As soon as I clock 65, which is just a couple of months away.
What havae been some of the lowest moments during your tenure?
You will be surprised that I have not had a situation where I have had to say “Oh God! Why did you allow this one to happen?”
Research carried out by the Justice Law and Order Sector revealed that 24 per cent of the public had confidence in the Judiciary. That had risen to 48 per cent in October 2017. Another survey by the Legal Aid Service Providers Network revealed that confidence had increased to 59 per cent. I am proud and will leave knowing that it was not a fight in vain.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
The most challenging has been the build-up of cases. We have a build of up two types, the work that comes in every day and the backlog (cases that have been in the system for more than two years).
On average how many cases can we say come in?
I am talking of 30,000 cases filed every year for the High Court alone.
What have you done to try and deal with the backlog and to decongest the prisons?
We have mounted a multipronged approached. We have continued with sessions in criminal matters and continue to handle civil matters like we used to. We have got more funding from the government and we are now in position to simultaneously mount many sessions throughout the country, but we lack judges.
There should have been 82 judges, but we have only 50 at High Court level. We hope government will take care of the deficit this year.
In 2014 we introduced plea bargaining, where offenders go to court, own up and are sentenced in proportion to the offenses committed. By the end of 2017 we had disposed of 6,000 cases.
There have been two attacks on courts by civilians protesting possible litigation against high-ranking officials. What do you make of it?
I think that it is absurd. When someone thinks of attacking us because of a decision made or one we are about to make, that is misconstruing our role as administrators of justice.
We don’t invite people to come and file cases. They choose where to file their disputes and when they do we expect the alleged aggressors to submit to the jurisdiction of the courts so that the dispute is resolved. We don’t expect violence.
The attack (on Makindye Magistrate’s Court) was unfortunate because the Inspector General of Police is not above the law. If people think he has a case to answer, the best thing to do would have been for him to go there and defend himself.
Where did the attacks leave the Judiciary? Has it not been cowed by the protests?
No, it wasn’t cowed. We don’t prosecute cases. Cases are prosecuted by the DPP and by the police.
Doesn’t the fact that the magistrate in Makindye was forced to adjourn leave an impression that the Judiciary can be bullied?
An individual can be attacked. He or she will either stand his or her ground and fight on or flee. The magistrate retreated to his chambers, but at the end of the day, when you see a judicial officer fleeing it is not justice taking flight. The individual should be back in place the following day and we expect the process to continue.
Are you not bothered by the fact that some of the attacks have been done in the names of people who should know better given their legal backgrounds?
Gen Kayihura is a lawyer who has never practiced. The Speaker of Parliament has practiced law, but we don’t know whether those people first discussed the matter with the attackers before they came to court. We don’t know whether they were doing it for or on behalf of those people and with their blessing.
How independent is the Judiciary? There are concerns that delivery of rulings in electoral offenses is a result of pressures from without?
The Judiciary is independent and the delays don’t take away its independence. The High Court, which I speak for, completed the cases within the time stipulated by the law. The cases went to Court of Appeal.
I don’t know what happened, but there could have been reasons. We, for instance, know that they were not given facilitation. We made a case for supplementary funding and the Treasury told us that there is no money. That naturally slowed down the process. You cannot blame it on the independence of the Judiciary or lack of it.
Why are they taking long?
They (cases) are complex. Corruption is not documented that you pick a document, present it and you get a conviction. Some of the cases are in minds of those who commit the crimes.
There are concerns that the system catches the small fry, but lets the big fish swim on?
You cannot blame that on the Judiciary. The big fish you are talking about may be so clever as not to identify itself.
On the other hand the small fish is up and about and in the process it is caught yet for us we deal with those who are before us. We don’t go for those who should have come with those people and yet are not in court. In other words, our institution is evidence-based. You can perhaps blame the investigation mechanism. We don’t investigate cases. Cases are investigated by another independent arm of government.
Bamwine’s take on Key issues
On judicial system being tailored to favour the rich and connected
Not really. We introduced the small claims procedure to assist the rich recover what people owe them without hiring lawyers or brokers. That is one way helping the poor.
On courts awarding colossal sums in damages, especially in electoral petitions
There is no poor politician. By the time you go to contest an election you know that if you lose and you go to court that case will be contested. The damages and costs awarded depend on how much the other party has used. If the court is satisfied that the party spent so much, you shouldn’t come to court to plead poverty. Get this from me; litigation is time consuming, expensive and unpredictable.
On allegations of corruption against some judicial officers
There have been a few allegations, but the bulk of officers are working without any blemish. However, where an officer is accused and evidence is adduced, we have not hesitated to deal with it. Right now there are a number of pending investigations and we are waiting for the outcome.