Valentine's Day winner: New Tanzanian court rules improve experience of justice by vulnerable groups

Tanzania’s Chief Justice, Ibrahim Hamis Juma, has promulgated new rules that could greatly change how people from vulnerable groups experience courts and the justice system. That is why this is Jifa's winning Valentine's Day 2019 good news story: we like the care it shows for normally-forgotten people with no one else to champion their cause. The rules prioritise cases involving disadvantaged people, and set deadlines for finalizing matters in which they are involved. The new rules also provide that visually impaired people will get a free braille copy of any judgment or order in a case where they are involved, and that a specially assigned employee at each court will be responsible for making everyone at that court more sensitive to “vulnerability issues”.

Read the Rules on TanzLII

Court rules are often pretty boring to outsiders. Usually they are only of interest to lawyers who must obey them to the letter so they don’t get into trouble and make a mistake about filing deadlines, for example.

But new rules and regulations promulgated earlier this month under the signature of Tanzania’s Chief Justice, Ibrahim Hamis Juma, fall into a different category altogether.

For many disadvantaged people, they will read like a mini-charter of rights at court. The official title gives a clue about the intention: “Judicature and application of laws (Practice and procedure in cases involving vulnerable groups) Rules, 2019”.

The rules will apply to all court proceedings in mainland Tanzania and are aimed at speeding up the finalization of cases involving “vulnerable groups”. These are defined in the rules as being people who, because of adverse social, economic, cultural and other social practices, are weak and marginalized or those who have “traditionally been victims of violations”. These include “widows, children, elderly people and persons with disabilities.”

The first regulation imposes a strict time limit on finalizing cases “involving” people from a vulnerable group, although the exact nature and degree of "involvement" that will be required to trigger the rules is not clear. Such a case must be finalized within six months from when a hearing starts, although in exceptional circumstance the court may extend the time a further three months.

Cases involving “a person from a vulnerable group” must be given priority over ever other case by the presiding judge or magistrate. This is to apply at all stages of a case including admission, hearing and determination.

The rules also make provision for a sign interpreter to be hired and used where necessary, with the costs of hiring such an interpreter to be “paid by the judiciary”. The language of this rule is peremptory, with the court given the duty and power to call a sign interpreter as needed.

The presiding officer is also empowered to arrange “suitable places” for cases to be heard when matters involve people from vulnerable groups and when existing court premises are “not friendly”.

Whenever a case involves a child, the matter must be conducted in accordance with the “Law of the Child Act”.

Another significant section sets up a system to ensure that cases involving vulnerable groups are dealt with correctly: a “desk officer” is designated to identify matters where these rules must be applied and to pass on this information to the presiding officer assigned to the case. The desk officer must also “establish and maintain” a database of such cases. Crucially this person must also “sensitize and guide other staff” on “vulnerability issues”.

The rules insist that where a case “involves” a “visually impaired person” the court must “strive to provide” to him or her a free braille version of the outcome - whether a judgment, ruling, decree or order -  within 30 days from finalization.

And when, in a civil or criminal matter, the presiding officer believes that “a person with vulnerability” should have legal aid, the new rules provide that the judge or magistrate “shall cause” legal aid to be obtained in accordance with the Legal Aid Act.

The CJ, appointed to this office in 2017, is the eighth judge to hold this office since Tanzanian independence. He has taken a strong line in defence of judicial independence, with a stern warning issued last year that politicians should stay off “his territory”, and that there would be “grave consequences” for those who did not. His remarks were seen by the legal community at the time as a reference to government “flouting” of court orders, among other problems.

Earlier this month (February 2019) he also spoke up on the need for the Tanzanian bench to consist of “at least 150” judges, saying there was a “critical shortage” of presiding officers at the moment.

In particular he mentioned people’s growing awareness of civil rights and that this awareness in turn required more judges to help ensure that everyone had the right to readily access justice – this was a theme picked up in the new rules which seek to ensure that disadvantaged people are not left out of court-driven developments that protect civil rights.

Among his areas of specialty, the CJ has a Masters degree in international human rights law from Raoul Wallenberg University in Sweden, and a PhD on the law of the sea, from Ghent University in Belgium.