The International Association of Judges’ Africa bloc conference in Cape Town earlier this month was a landmark event in many ways, highlighting the various and crucial needs of judicial officers across Africa. At the Judicial Institute for Africa we recognized the role that this conference could play and so we were determined to offer what help we could to support the initiative. And indeed, many of the issues which Jifa has been concerned about, were raised and flagged by participants as crucial. Some of these relate to judicial officers themselves, some concern governments and a third category deals with issues where outside intervention and help is needed.
Perhaps the most challenging session for delegates concerned the “conservatism” of too many judges in Africa, despite the potentially liberating effect of new constitutions. “Judicial timidity” and an “enthusiastic abdication of judicial responsibilities” in the face of a determined executive meant that the rule of law, constitutionalism and democracy itself were all at risk. In our view, training of judicial officers is crucial to address this problem: in a safe and supportive environment, judges need to reflect on what their judicial independence actually means.
Related to this, networking by judicial officers is also important so that judges and magistrates feel professionally and personally supported in their work, particularly in challenging interactions with the executive.
The conference also highlighted the need for improved resourcing of judicial officers in many countries: with salaries sometimes barely higher than petrol attendants, no books or even facilities for copying judgments, magistrates and judges cannot be expected to produce quality decisions that deal fairly with the litigants before them.
Delegates also told shocking tales of the dangers and discomfort they and their colleagues experienced as a regular part of their work. Judicial officers killed in the line of duty, working under appalling conditions, having to sleep in court buildings to stay safe, forced to live in a stable. All of these problems need to be taken up with governments by lobby groups, because judicial officers cannot be expected to uphold the law when their own lives are needlessly put in danger.
Outside monitoring and pressure is also crucial when governments try to undermine judicial independence or “starve” judicial officers into submission by withholding funds.
The conference also illustrated the need for countries to have a single judiciary. Not only is this foreshadowed, even required, under most of new constitutions, but it is also essential to protect the magistracy and ensure they are properly funded and respected. If magistrates and judges are seen as part of one judicial arm of government, judicial officers in the lower courts will inevitably gain from the support and protection of the higher courts whose members often have a more powerful voice.
And most of all, perhaps, the conference illustrated why judicial associations are a good idea, and why judicial officers should seriously consider joining such bodies. Who better to take up the cause of judges and magistrates when government treats them badly, undermines their independence and threatens the rule of law?
All papers from the conference can be found on the IAJ conference website
The following articles have been written about the conference