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The Judiciary Should Not Gag the Public

By Ofwono Opondo

April 27, 15
This week, Judges of the Courts of Uganda led by the new Chief Justice Bart Katureebe were reported, and one hopes accurately, in various media to be miffed up, and complaining about the constant criticisms against the judiciary, particularly the bench over some of their decisions by some public officials including President Yoweri Museveni. The judges singled out presidential press secretary Tamale Mirundi as their habitual tormentor using the media, and are reported to be seeking Museveni’s intervention. A judge who thinks Tamale has offended them should seek redress in the courts of law, instead of administrative gag.
The judges should know better that he who wears a public cloth must be ready for public criticism, and at any rate, there is a Supreme Court ruling that false news is not an offence. So even if they were being falsely accused, it should be treated as an innocent, perhaps misguided opinions from uninformed people putting a spotlight to promote transparency and accountability. Judges who cannot stand public criticism have the liberty to seek comfort in the privacy of their homes.   
The judges believe that the “temple of justice,” is being undermined by constant ‘vilifications’ most of which in their view are often unfounded, unsubstantiated, or perhaps out-rightly false meant to intimidate, blackmail and lower their integrity in the performance their duties.
Yet during the week Katureebe publicly acknowledged the malaise in the courts and castigated corruption especially among advocates. The Press emerged as The Fourth Estate because the executive, legislature and judiciary in Victorian era had become utterly corrupt and overbearing, and it was believed that the press would be able to check them.
There are judges, magistrates and court registrars who run money lending and real estate businesses surprisingly within court premises, which has gone on for donkey years, the reason civil disputes are lucrative to them, and is one where too much public complaints emanate.
Their complain comes against the backdrop of the launch by Chief Justice Emeritus Samuel Wako Wambuzi of his book, The Odyssey of a Judicial Career in Precarious Times; My Trials and Triumphs as a Three-Time Chief Justice of Uganda, at which he also made similar references and said that “although the judiciary is the third arm of government it is being treated as a junior partner by the executive and the legislature.”  In the book Wambuzi enumerates instances where judges, magistrates, senior and junior court officials, and advocates who appear before them have connived to defeat the very justice they were supposed to uphold.
Wambuzi details many reasons including ‘‘indiscipline in the judicial system,’’ especially “irregular attendance by court officials, unnecessary adjournments, poor case management and outright corruption and bribe taking,” as responsible for the public frustration and antagonism with the judiciary. There are judicial officers who don’t want to submit to their supervisors and often literary take the ‘independence’ of the judiciary to mean non cooperation with other actors as Wambuzi aptly refers to his own gutter warfare with a former Principal Judge over a vehicle. We have witnessed some judges refusing transfer to stations they deem not ‘wet’ enough in their own lingua!
Many times now former Justice of the Supreme Court George W. Kanyeihamba has ruthlessly described the judiciary as a “den of corruption,” and the public hasn’t heard the judges complain against him, or call him to order since he now often appears before them as an advocate, and therefore an officer of court.
But many pundits think that instead of complaining, the judges should collectively have an introspection of themselves, and also the glaring public frustration with the courts in the way they conduct business which is partly responsible to the rise of mob justice and even contract murders in the country.
Shielded from overt public scrutiny, and their security of tenure protected by law, most judicial officers arising from their lopsided elitist training falsely behave as if they lived in the world yonder, and therefore not sensitive to the tribulations many common people go through.
While article126 (1) of the Constitution says judicial power is derived from the people, sub-article (2) (e), which states “substantive justice shall be administered without undue regard to technicalities,” has been the most abused by judicial officers. They have found legal technicalities the refuge to hide, and hence public outrage against the judiciary.
The Code of conduct for judicial officers is rarely adhered to or effectively enforced which has contributed to the arrogance and erosion the behavior of some of the justices. Judicial independence should be no licence for judges and magistrates to behave as they like. Often Courts start late, ending early by 2.00pm, and it is not uncommon to find some judges playing golf from 8.30 till 1.00pm when they break off for lunch after which retire home.
Judges, magistrates and court clerks have been known to hold to particular case files, and Wambuzi highlights an instance where a civil case was disposed off at the High Court in Jinja but irregularly found its way within a month before another judge in Kampala who had interest in it and gave different results. Although both the judge and advocate concerned were questioned and referred to the Law Council there has never a report submitted until Wambuzi retired!