Supreme Court bench to swell to 21 justices

President Museveni leaves the High Court in Kampala after officially opening the New Law Year 2022 recently.  PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • If the amendments sail through both the Cabinet and Parliament, Supreme Court justices will be increased from the currently recommended 11 to about 21—with the Chief Justice who heads the court inclusive.

The Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs has tabled Cabinet proposals to amend the constitution in an effort to increase the numbers of the Justices of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Court.

If the amendments sail through both the Cabinet and Parliament, Supreme Court justices will be increased from the currently recommended 11 to about 21—with the Chief Justice who heads the court inclusive.

Elsewhere, the Court of Appeal—which doubles as the Constitutional Court—will soar from the currently recommended 15 judges to 56 justices, including the Deputy Chief Justice who heads it.

Separately, the Justice ministry has tabled before the Cabinet a motion for resolution under the Judicature Act in a bid to increase the numbers of the High Court Justices from 83 to 151, including the Principal Judge who heads the court.

Chief Justice Alphonse Owiny-Dollo confirmed the development in an interview via telephone on Saturday. He said: “After Cabinet it will be taken to Parliament so that it can amend the Judicature Act because it’s the judicature Act that provides for the number of justices of the Supreme Court and what have you.”

CJ Dollo also said the proposed phased manner of recruitment “means we are not going to recruit those justices and judges in one financial year.”

He added: “For example…we are going to put up a Court of Appeal in Gulu and Mbarara. Mbarara to deal with west and Gulu to deal with north. Then later on we shall have Arua, Mbale, Jinja, Masaka, Mubende, and Fort Portal.”

The Justice ministry insists that the proposed changes are necessary such that the courts are proportionate to the population boom Uganda is currently experiencing.

According to the Cabinet memorandum seen by the Sunday Monitor, the Justice ministry says the expansion of the Judiciary was approved last August under Cabinet minute extract number 177. It was cleared to happen in a phased manner from 2021/2022 to 2024/2025 financial years.

The need to steeply increase the number of judges, the memorandum says, is informed by Vision 2040 which is conceptualised around strengthening the fundamentals of the economy.

“Uganda Vision 2040 highlights the policy reforms among which is to facilitate the independence of the Judiciary,” the memorandum reads in part, adding, “In line with Vision 2040, the Cabinet under cabinet minute extract number 177 (CT 2021) upon consideration of Cabinet memorandum CT (2021) 51 approved the revised Judiciary Service Establishment/structure for judicial officers. The increase in the number of justices and judges is intended to boost the Judiciary’s human resources to effectively deliver judicial services to the people of Uganda, by taking justice closer to the people. Human recourse is a key in achieving this aim.”

The Judiciary’s top brass has severally said that for years the limited number of judges has stopped the arm of government from delivering meaningful justice to Ugandans who flood courts to settle disputes.

“The Judiciary requires adequate manpower and tools to effect Articles 28(1) and 126(2)(b) of the Constitution that provides for the delivery of justice without delay. The available manpower in the period was not commensurate with the volume of cases filed,” said CJ Dollo at the start of this year.

Logjam of cases

The delays CJ Dollo addressed himself to show themselves true in a backlog of 152,582 cases brought forward from the financial year 2019/20. This was compounded by the 165,347 cases registered in the financial year 2020/ 2021.

In terms of sub-regions, Ankole is giving the Judiciary’s senior management a headache as it has the biggest case logjam. This owes to the fact that the dozen districts in the sub-region are served by only three judges who are under one High Court circuit in Mbarara. The Judiciary says if it had the financial muscle, it would install two other High Court circuits.

Busoga sub-region, which has about 3.8 million people, is served by two High Court judges under the Jinja City-based High Court circuit. The judiciary insists that it needs a minimum of three High Court circuits to cover the subregion.

Acholi sub region is a huge geographical area, but it’s served by the High court circuit headquartered in Gulu City. This forces litigants to travel as far as 200 kilometres in search of justice. The Judiciary says two High Court circuits would be the panacea for the sub-region.

The ratio of judicial officers to the population paints a miserable picture. Judiciary documents reviewed by Sunday Monitor show that while Uganda has nine Supreme Court justices, each one of those is allotted a staggering 5,111,111 people. The Court of Appeal has 13 justices, with each judge apportioned 3,538,461 people; the High Court has 59 justices, working out to a ratio of one to 793,103.

Though his actions are now under challenge at the Constitutional Court, President Museveni recently appointed 16 individuals as acting High Court judges specifically to address the growing case backlog.

“These appointments are an outcome of the commission’s ongoing recruitment exercise of judicial officers at various levels into the Judiciary service. This is the largest ever appointment of judges of the High Court at that level by the president,” the Judicial Service Commission said in a statement, adding, “This appointment will enhance the capacity of the High Court to expeditiously dispose of cases and tackle the backlog.”

The Commission, among other things, is charged with interviewing applicants for judicial positions.

The memorandum now before Cabinet points out that the number of the justices of the Supreme Court and that of the Court of Appeal were last increased by the amending the Judicature Act in 2011. It adds that the number of the judges of the High Court were last increased in 2017 following a motion of resolution of Parliament.

“With the passage of time, there has been an increase in the population, crime rate and increased awareness among the public of their legal rights which has resulted into high demand for Judiciary services and court use,” the memorandum reads in part, adding, “The number of cases filed has led to acute case backlog in both the upper bench and the lower bench that requires more manpower to deliver justice to the people of Uganda effectively.”

To make the case for increment of judicial officers of the upper bench, the Justice ministry revealed that—as of February 28, 2022—the case backlog at the Supreme Court stood at 323 cases out of 651 pending cases; the Court of Appeal had a backlog of 4,739 cases out of the 7,685 pending cases; and the High Court has a logjam of 29,113 cases out of 60,132 pending cases.

It adds: “This implies there is…34,175 backlog cases in the superior courts. There is, therefore, a need to increase the numbers of the justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal and Judges of the High Court to reduce the case backlog to improve the rate and time of concluding cases registered in the courts in order to deliver justice in a timely manner.”

Financial implications

Money has always been at the heart of the struggle to increase the human resource with the judiciary saying it needs about Shs800billion. Now the Justice ministry says there has been a meeting of minds across the board to increase the Judiciary’s human resource.

“The agreement among the institutions consulted is that there is an urgent need to start implementing the Judiciary Service Establishment Structure for judicial officers which Cabinet approved on August 9, 2021,” the memorandum reads, adding, “This will be achieved by amending the Judicature Act to increase the number of justices of the Supreme Court and Justices of the Court of Appeal.”

The Justice minister is expected—the memorandum adds—to present a motion of a resolution of Parliament under section 13 of the Judicature Act to Parliament to increase the number of judges of the High Court.

In further justifying the need for more hands in the Judiciary, the Justice ministry points to what it calls the highly litigious population arising from population growth. It also explains why there has been a corresponding surge in both land and family cases.  It also illuminates an increase in commercial cases as a result of technological developments.

“ …. And with attendant criminal cases, there is a need to increase the human recourse capacity of justices and judges to handle the high number of cases. This will result in the increase of the number of benches constituted at the Supreme Court to increase the number of the Court of appeal at the regional level and increase the number of High [Court] circuits across the country,” the memorandum says.

Despite getting the short end of the stick over the years, the Judiciary’s top brass has been intransigent about the economic effects of government inaction.

“In the Commercial Court alone, over Shs5 trillion was locked up in the 6,094 unresolved cases,” Justice Owiny-Dollo said last year in his State-of-the-Judiciary address. “The volume of pending land cases as of June 30, 2021, stood at 32,413 broken down as follows: 15,966 at the High Court, 10,944 at the Chief Magistrates Court 5,419 at the Magistrate Grade One Court.”

He proceeded to add thus: “This means that a vast amount of land and resources are locked up and not contributing to the economic development of the country. The volume of pending land cases, according to the Judiciary, stands at 32,413 including 15,966 cases with a minimum value of Shs51m at the High Court level without factoring in the value of money locked up in unresolved land disputes at the lower courts.

“This means that a vast amount of land and resources worth trillions of Uganda Shillings is locked up and not contributing to the economic development of the country.”

In asking the Cabinet to agree to the expansion of the Judiciary, the Justice ministry factored in the financial implications. It revealed that the Judiciary currently has a wage bill of Shs108 billion for the financial year 2022/2023.

“The budget is sufficient to meet the recommended wages for the existing staff and for those to be recruited in accordance with the approved recruitment plan. The certificate of financial implications issued by the Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development in respect of the Bill and the motion for a resolution of Parliament under section 13 of the Judicature Act is attached,” the memorandum notes.

Salary enhancements

If the phased salary enhancements are followed to the letter, the Judiciary’s wage bill will swell substantially by 2025. Currently, the Judiciary annually spends Shs3.1b on the 11 Supreme Court justices; Shs4.1b on 15 Court of Appeal judges; and Shs22.4b on 83 High Court judges.

The salary enhancements will spike the figure to Shs5.9b for 21 Supreme Court justices; Shs15.4b for 56 Court of Appeal judges; and Shs40.8b for 151 High Court judges.

The Judiciary pays a Supreme Court judge Shs23.5m each month; Court of Appeal judge Shs23m each month; and High Court judge Shs22.5m each month.