Uganda judiciary to hold court in refugee camps; warn police on judicial independence

It has been a busy time for Uganda's judiciary, in the media for contrasting reasons. The judiciary put its collective foot down after police summonsed a magistrate in connection with a case he had heard and which the police were also investigating. In a strongly-worded statement the judiciary said that such actions were ‘irregular’ and that the police ‘cannot summon judicial officers to explain how they handle court cases.’ Another, more positive development, has seen the judiciary in discussion with the Refugee Law Project over holding court sessions in refugee camps starting as soon as next month. Uganda hosts about 1.4 milllion refugees, more than any other African country, and this step is seen as highly significant in offering refugees in camps better access to justice.

Uganda’s judiciary, through its acting chief registrar, has reacted strongly to an almost unheard-of event: police investigators have summoned a judicial officer in connection with a case he has handled.

A statement issued earlier this week on behalf of ‘the judiciary’ of Uganda, refers to a media report entitled, ‘Magistrate summoned over controversial land eviction order’.

That report noted that police had ‘summoned a magistrate’ to record a statement related to an investigation they were carrying out. Their inquires concern an alleged illegal eviction and malicious damage to property matter arising from a civil case heard in the Hoima chief magistrates court.

Acting chief registrar of the judiciary, Tom Chemutai, followed up the report by advising the director, criminal investigations, that ‘it is irregular for the police to summon a magistrate over a court decision.’

‘The police cannot summon judicial officers to explain how they handle cases,’ Chemutai said. He added, ‘Police can only seek clarification from court about a decision made in any matter.’

He explained why police are barred from summonsing judicial officers in connection with their official work, by referring to Uganda’s constitution which says that ‘in exercise of judicial power, the courts shall be independent and shall not be subject to the control or direction of any person or authority.’ Another section of the constitution said that ‘a person exercising judicial power shall not be liable to any action or suit for any act or omission by that person in the exercise of judicial power.’

Chemutai went on to explain that this did not mean that judicial officers were not accountable to any higher authority. Anyone dissatisfied with a court decision could appeal to a higher court. In addition, any court users with complaints related to the conduct of any judicial officer was entitled to petition the inspectorate of courts, the chief registrar or the Judicial Service Commission and ask for proper investigations to be conducted and appropriate action taken.

Uganda’s judiciary has also been in the news for a less controversial reason. A team from the Refugee Law Project (RLP) recently visited the new resident judge of Masindi, Judge Gadenya Paul Wolimbwa, because they wanted to discuss the possibility of holding a high court criminal session in the refugee camp at Kiryandongo.

Judge Wolimbwa said he welcomed the intervention as timely, and urged the RLP to collaborate with the judiciary to establish mobile courts as another way of bringing services to under-represented areas. He added that this would allow both refugees and the host communities to benefit.

The question of access to justice for refugees is crucial but often neglected. Uganda hosts more refugees than any other African country: the most recent figures put the number at around 1.4 million.

During their discussions, Judge Wolimbwa said he was willing to consider holding a criminal session of 240 cases in March, if all the necessary preparatory work had been done by then.

An official report on the discussions, issued by the Uganda judiciary, said the RLP would be signing a memorandum of understanding with the judiciary, to provide ‘mechanisms’ for the planned session.