The Covid-19 pandemic escalated the injustices that exist in our society. It exposed income inequalities among nations to the lowest strata of our society, social systems were disrupted, supply chains collapsed, dreams have vaporised, et cetera. Therefore, courts are of critical importance in mitigating the prevailing injustices.
The President exercising the powers of the Minister of Health under the Interpretation Act and Public Health Act made the directives that must be gazetted in form of a statutory instrument for them to have any force of law. Following the June 6 2021 presidential address, indeed tough measures were announced. The President, however, was cautious not to impede the work of the Legislature and the Judiciary. The executive and legislature are fully functional yet the Judiciary, the third arm of government, is not.
The Chief Justice issued a circular on June 7 suspending court hearings and other court processes for 42 days based on the presidential directives and Article 133 of the Cconstitution. It is important to note that Covid-19 has affected every institution but the arbitrary nature of issuing directions without consulting the stakeholders like the staff of judiciary, Uganda Law Society and the general public is unfortunate.
It is paramount to note that all court users appreciate safety. There would be the administration of justice following the SOPs while keeping safe. The Chief Justice acted as the alpha and omega. Even when consultations are not mandated by law, consultative leadership is a trait of good leadership and discretionary powers must be exercised judiciously.
Article 133(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda states that The Chief Justice- (a) shall be the head of the Judiciary and shall be responsible for the administration and supervision of all courts in Uganda, and (b) may issue orders and directions to the courts necessary for the proper and efficient administration of justice. The said legal provision implies that order or directions are made for the proper and efficient administration of justice.
Suspending hearings in a country struggling with an acute case backlog can not be for the proper and efficient administration of justice. Strict adherence to the SOPs and vaccinations of court users would instead be encouraged. Tough sanctions for any violations thereof would also be imposed.
The Chief Justice underlooked the plight of many lawyers struggling to make ends meet whose source of livelihood is a functioning judiciary. These directions have left many clients whose matters were fixed in different courts hanging. Some might get their cases fixed as late as 2022 considering the fact that there is a court vacation commencing on August 15. Meanwhile, justice delayed is justice denied.
The Chief Justice directed that only urgent matters are handled upon an application for a certificate of urgency hence condemning ordinary court users to extra costs.
Advocate Nicholas Opiyo recently noted that there cannot be suspension of enjoyment of rights just because of a pandemic. He further noted that all matters before court are urgent. I concur with his view and argue that the directives of the Chief Justice have an effect of facilitating abuse of human rights and perpetuating injustices.
In a country where 90 per cent experience injustices and thereof requiring justice needs, where it takes an average of three to four years to dispose of a case related to social and economic rights, the directions only amount to justice denied and longer stay in jails. The Chief Justice heads the Judiciary, however, he does not have a free ticket to abuse his powers or act ultra vires.
Proverbs 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern”.
Ivan Bwowe is an advocate of the High Court of the Republic of Uganda.