Judiciary budget to jump four-fold to Shs800b

Supreme Court judges head for a session at the court on March 18. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

The Judiciary says the money will help set up Court of Appeal stations in eight other towns, increase High Court judges from 81 to 126, Supreme Court judges from 11 to 15, station a chief magistrate in every district and provide more lower magistrates. 

The Judiciary is readying a proposal for a four-fold increase in its funding, which they say is the only way to improve the dispensing of justice to Ugandans.

In the new proposal, the Judiciary’s draft budget for the coming financial year is Shs800 billion, up from about Shs200b it received for this financial year.

Top Judiciary officials, including Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, say the huge jump in funding for the Judiciary has been agreed upon with President Museveni, although Ministry of Finance officials are asking the Judiciary to trim its proposed budget a bit.

 Even if the Judiciary were to go by the Shs600b that the Ministry of Finance proposes, its budget for next year would still have jumped three-fold from this year’s.

Justice Owiny-Dollo and other officials in the Judiciary believe the money will turn around the dispensing of justice by helping to put in place a new structure.

The envisaged new format, which judicial officials say will bring justice closer to court users, will see the Court of Appeal, which doubles as the Constitutional Court, decentralised to all regions of the country; each of Kampala’s five divisions and every district outside Kampala will get a chief magistrate, while  each constituency will get at least one grade one magistrate.

In the proposed structure, there will be Court of Appeal stations in Mbale, Jinja, Gulu, Arua, Fort Portal, Mbarara, Masaka and Mubende; 15 Supreme Court judges instead of the 11 envisaged in the current structure; 126 High Court judges instead of the 81 envisioned currently.      

National Unity Platform party supporters  appear before Masaka  Magistrates Court on January 19. Of the 386 Magistrate Grade One courts in the country  only 126 have magistrates.   PHOTO/ MALIK FAHAD JJINGO

“This will really be transformative. This is what should have been done right from independence,” Justice Owiny- Dollo said in a phone interview.

He added “If we get this budget then cases will be heard quickly and case backlog will be history.” 

Currently, the Judiciary has been operating on a measly budget that hasn’t exceeded Shs200b, something experts say has crippled the work of courts.

For instance, the Court of Appeal has only 14 justices but it has to take care of all appeals emanating from all High Courts scattered around the country and it has always been stationed in Kampala, hence making it hard for litigants to access it.  It has now a case backlog of about 7,351 cases. To show how much of a problem case backlog is in the courts, the Court of Appeal this week disposed of an appeal in which a woman had appealed against her conviction by the High Court of manslaughter and sentencing her to nine years in jail.

The Court of Appeal upheld the finding of the High Court and the sentence, but the ruling came 10 years later, after the appellant had already served her jail term and left prison.   

The Judiciary has only 44 Chief Magistrates who have to administer justice in more than 135 districts, something that has contributed to the 10,359 cases that have piled up, at that level, over time.

 “I have always asked myself: why is it easy to set up a new district but it is not easy to give that district a chief magistrate? It’s easy to set up new constituencies but it is hard to put in place Grade ones [magistrates] in those areas. So you create constituencies for MPs but you can not give those people judicial officers,” Justice Owiny-Dollo said.

Over the years, Judiciary honchos have accused the Executive of neglect, which they said was demonstrated by illegally placing the Judiciary, one of the three arms of government, under the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs instead of being independent like the Executive and the Legislature.

 This, the critics say, means that the Judiciary keeps on getting crumbs of the national budget, something that has contributed to its inadequate infrastructure, low morale among its personnel, corruption and delays in the administration of justice, among other things. 

In 2017, during the annual judge’s conference,  President Museveni in a subtle but unambiguous style told the judges who were, as usual, asking for more funding how the Judiciary in the years to come will remain at the bottom of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government’s funding priorities, saying the primaries are now security, roads, health and education.

He evoked a biblical story, in the book of Genesis, saying although God created man on the last day, it never implied that he wasn’t important.

 “Just like God, when we came here in 1986, we started with the basics and for the last 31 years, we have been dealing with the basics like roads, health and education…” Mr Museveni said back then.

The Judiciary has consistently complained about this under funding.  To put matters into context, they have always compared themselves to the Legislature, another arm of government, which they say has been getting about 1.69 per cent of the National Budget while the Judiciary has been getting 0.54 per cent.

In this financial year, for instance, Parliament took Shs672 billion off the National Budget while the Judiciary had to make do with less than one-third of that – Shs199 billion. In the Financial Year 2019/2020, Parliament got Shs682 billion, while the Judiciary got Shs181 billion.

In 2009, the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee did a study comparing the judicial human resources available at the time with Uganda’s population, which stood at 32 million people at the time.

The team, having done some mathematics, recommended, among other things, that the number of High Court judges should rise to 81, the Court of Appeal should have 15 judges while the Supreme Court should have 11.  These numbers are still the ones serving an estimated 45 million people and Judiciary managers say they must be augmented quickly.

In the current judicial structure, for instance, districts such as Kyegegwa, Ntoroko, Kamwenge, Bundibugyo, Kasese, Kyenjojo, Kitagwenda and Bunyangabo are served by one Chief Magistrate, who is based in Fort Portal City, Kabarole District.

“The present staffing levels only cover 47 per cent of the approved staff structure of 2009. The entire Judiciary has a paltry total number of 377 judicial officers serving a population projected at 45 million people. Of the 386 Magistrate Grade One courts, only 126 have magistrates.  Only 27 Chief Magistrates are caretaking between two and six magistrates courts, with the Fort Portal Chief Magistrate operating six magisterial areas while the one of Soroti and Lira are each running five chief magisterial areas. With such glaring manpower gaps, there is no way the people can receive the justice they are entitled to,” reads a statement prepared by Mr Pius Bigirimana, the permanent secretary to the judiciary,  to the recently constituted Judicial Council, which advises the Chief Justice.   

The turning point in the Judiciary’s bid to get more fiscal muscle was last year when President Museveni signed into law the long sought after Administration of the Judiciary Act, which among other things, ensures the much-needed financial independence of the Judiciary. 

Retired Principal Judge Yorokam Bamwine  interacts with  a prisoner at Luzira Upper prison during a training on plea bargaining on May 1, 2018 . The Judiciary introduced the plea bargaining system to curb case backlog but the issue is still persistent. PHOTO/ RACHEL MABALA

 The Administration of Judiciary Act operationalised Article 128(5) of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Judiciary shall be self-accounting and may deal directly with the Ministry of Finance in relation to its finances. 

In accordance with Article 155 (2) of the Constitution, which stipulates “The head of any self-accounting department, commission or organisation set up under this Constitution shall cause to be submitted to the President at least two months before the end of each financial year estimates of administrative and development expenditure and estimates of revenues of the respective department, commission or organisation for the following year.’’

 Justice Owiny-Dollo in February presented the Judiciary’s budget estimates to Mr Museveni at the State House Entebbe. 

According to documents seen by the Saturday Monitor, envisaging that the Court of Appeal will expand from Kampala and in the process have five different stations, upcountry, Justice Owiny- Dollo presented a budget of Shs770b.

Mr Museveni, who is said to have been positive, guided that the budget should be enlarged to a tune of Shs800b since he wanted eight Court of Appeal stations opened up in the countryside instead of the five stations that Justice Owiny-Dollo had tabled.

 If the Shs800b budget is passed, the breakdowns show that the Judiciary would spend Shs246m on wages, Shs380b on non-wages, and Shs174b on development.

Still, there was another twist when on March 25, 2021, officials from the Ministry of Finance asked the judiciary to trim down their ambitions.

 According to documents seen by the Saturday Monitor, Finance ministry told the Judiciary that providing funds for an additional wage for recruitment of staff should be based on the current court structure meaning the Court of Appeal and the Magistrate courts wouldn’t be expanded as the Judiciary wants.

In the adjusted budget which totals to about Shs600 billion, wages would consume Shs93b, Non- wage (including arrears) would consume Shs380b and development would take up Shs169b.

Despite the adjustment, the Judiciary says President Museveni has already written to  the Finance ministry, copying the Speaker of Parliament and the Judiciary, insisting that Shs800 billion is what should be given to the Judiciary in the next financial year.

“The President knows a lot about budgeting because this is what he has been doing for a long time,” Justice Owiny-Dollo said. “And by the time he says we should increase our budget to Shs800 billion, he knows what is in the coffers. So for us we shall go with Shs800 billion and the Ministry of Finance will explain other things to the President.”

Asked why they are insisting on trimming the Judiciary’s budget in seeming defiance of the President’s explicit orders, Mr Jim Mugunga, the Finance ministry spokesperson, said: “You can’t write that we are clashing. Ask your colleagues [journalists] who know about budgeting. They will tell you that it is a process and the figures can be changed even by Parliament.” 

In the constitutional petition in which lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo challenged the manner in which he claimed the Judiciary was being sidelined in terms of finances, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of Finance, in the strictest sense of the word, didn’t have a say in the Judiciary’s budget.

“A declaration doth issue that the Judiciary is only obliged to send its financial estimates of revenue and expenditure to the president for laying before Parliament without any review or amendment by the president, though it may be accompanied by comments of the president as part of the proposed estimates of government annually for each succeeding fiscal year,” Justice Christopher Izama Madrama wrote in his 2019 lead judgement, which was agreed upon by other four justices on the Coram.

While Finance ministry officials say allotting Shs800 billion to the Judiciary would be way too much, Justice Owiny-Dollo, who is superintending the Judiciary under the theme “Transforming the Judiciary to ensure real and meaningful access to justice,” insists they are missing out on the bigger picture contending that the Judiciary, if well bankrolled, can turn into a cash cow.

“The argument is that the Judiciary isn’t just a consuming institution but it can play an important role in the economy. Currently, they are about Shs3 trillion held up at the Commercial Court in unresolved cases,” Justice Owiny-Dollo explained.

“We have only six judges at the Commercial Court. If we were to add more five judges such that cases at that court are heard quickly, then trillions will be injected into the economy. So compare the Shs800 billion and the trillions that is being held up because of few judges and you will understand what I am talking about.”

Similarly, the Judiciary insists trillions will be released into the economy if the Lands Division of the High Court, which currently has only six judges, gets more of them. “There are thousands of cases which have piled up in the Lands Division. Just imagine how much money would be got if those cases are heard quickly. Land can be translated into money. If we have few judges then that money will be held up. That is why investing in the Judiciary is important if you are to boost the economy.”   

Still at the High Court level, the Judiciary is facing a crisis at the Mbarara High Court circuit, which has only three judges who preside over all cases from all the 12 districts found in the Ankole sub-region, leading to a spike in case backlog.

 “The Mbarara Court has the most case backlog because the population around there is big yet we have a few judges. To reduce the backlog, we would need to create more High Court circuits in that area. And that would mean an increase in judges.”   

To calm down finance officials, the Judiciary and its allies suggested that the changes should be implemented in a ponderous manner. “We understand this has the budgetary aspect, that is why we have also suggested that can be done in a phased manner,” Justice Benjamin Kabiito, the chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), says.

It is not yet clear how this impasse will end, but the JSC, which is now undercharged with recruiting both judicial and non-judicial staff, cautions that the battle is still on if the Shs800 billion is not assured.

“It is very clear that  the Finance  ministry wanted the budget reduced but for the new structure to come into play you would need those funds as the President suggested,” Justice Kabiito, said.

 “Until that time we can not do much.”  

Though the Judiciary is banking on Mr Museveni to sticking to his word, history shows that there is always a disparity between what the President says and what actually the Ministry of Finance does.   For instance, in  2015, when  Mr Museveni met the judges at State House Entebbe,  he ordered  Finance minister Matia Kasaija to procure what he termed as “simple cars, which are not costly, such as Suzukis and Isuzus” for all magistrates in the next financial year.  But, to date, as Judiciary documents reviewed by this writer have indicated, magistrates are still struggling with transport since they have never got the  cars.

Issue

Funding

In this financial year, Parliament took Shs672 billion off the National Budget, while the Judiciary had to make do with less than one-third of that – Shs199 billion. In the Financial Year 2019/2020, Parliament got Shs682 billion, while the Judiciary got Shs181 billion.

Breakdown

Budget

If the Shs800b budget is passed, the breakdowns show that the Judiciary would spend Shs246m on wages, Shs380b on non-wages, and Shs174b on development.

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