Judges and ECCMIS: When a mother calls her child bastard, don’t argue with her

Author, Gawaya Tegulle. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • ECCMIS needs to be suspended and subjected to digital pathology.  

The common man – akina yahe, if you are at the coast – will call it a problem. The lawyers will find very many words to describe it by paragraphs and pages in lots of very good English. But in the world of public policy and governance it is simply called “failure of policy”. 

The flaws are many and complaints that began quietly are getting louder and steadily metamorphosing into protests. Things are so bad, many judges are telling lawyers to circumvent the system for matters in their docket, to get hard copies of documents directly to their desks. It is a perfect illustration of the Jewish proverb: “When a mother calls her child a bastard, do not argue with her”. In October last year, the Judiciary launched its flagship programme – ECCMIS – to formally announce that it (too, at the very long last) had gone digital. It was a strong declaration of intent because for the first time, Uganda was fully automating its court system from the moment you file a case to when it is disposed of and appealed against. 

ECCMIS enjoyed plenty of favour across the board. The Judiciary proudly flaunted it and declared it would sort out the case backlog and fight corruption. The lawyers welcomed it as a timely relief that would ease things just a bit – reduce on the paperwork that takes up so much of the overheads budget, cut down on unnecessary trips to the court and for some, minimise interactions with some clerks who like to prove difficult at times to those who do not handle them with due respect.

By the way, courts are not controlled by judges and magistrates; that is a myth that you disabuse yourself of, a few months into legal practice proper. In fact two months, three, if you are kind of slow (like yours truly), is all you need to figure out that it is the clerks that run the show. God help you if you disrespect them in any way! They have a thousand ways of cutting you down to size. But hey, I digress!

ECCMIS which was, inter alia, designed to reduce on case backlog is, ironically, doing an excellent job of piling up the backlog and messing up work just fine. For lawyers in private practice whose earnings are largely from litigation, it is a structural bottleneck that is hitting them hard. Cases are being filed, but not moving; stuff is magically disappearing within the system, clients are screaming and not paying up. And, of course, for the public, who are the actual consumers of whatever happens – or doesn’t happen – in the courts, things are really frustrating just now, because justice is being casually delayed and is, therefore, being denied.  

“The thing has caused untold suffering, pain and severe mental torture to us and our clients,” goes one lamentation by a lawyer on the High Court Commercial Division WhatsApp platform. ”I have lost two very important clients because of the failings of this system.”

In fact, the lawyer declared he was going to sue, but a colleague, calmly and comically, pointed out that the case would never take off as he would be expected to use ECCMIS, so it would get disorganised in the system - like all the other cases. ECCMIS reminds you of the cute baby boy who enchanted everyone at birth but with time turned into a rogue that nobody wants around anymore.

Governance experts tell us that policy failure is not always absolute…even the worst of them will always have some small successes…if you look closely. ECCMIS is the plane that took off well but has failed to gain cruising altitude and if nothing is done, a crash is on the cards.

Problem is, the Judiciary is behaving like the legendary king who was walking naked, but insisted he was properly clad in a majestic invisible gown that could only be seen by those who had no sin. Truth is, ECCMIS needs to be suspended and subjected to digital pathology, so that the gap between its good intentions and bad results is dealt with.

Oh, and lest I be accused of playing Algebra: carrying x or y along without ever bothering to establish its actual mathematical value, ECCMIS stands for Electronic Court Case Management Information System.

Mr Gawaya Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda