Low Funding Breeds Tension in Judiciary

One of the catchwords of this year’s Judges conference was infighting, with none other Justice Benjamin Odoki suggesting regular meetings to minimize cases of officers fighting one another.

But one lingering question was who was fighting who and over what. Now, an investigation by The Observer has established that one of the sources of disgruntlement is the sharing of the judiciary’s meager budget of Shs 85 billion. Indeed, the issue took centre stage during the February conference in Entebbe, as some judges demanded to know exactly how the judiciary’s budget was being used.

According to sources in the conference, the concern among judges was that a lot of money was being spent on such things as office expenses and officers’ allowances meanwhile, the officers argued, very little money is allocated to handling cases so as to decongest prisons and reduce the legendary backlog.

Among the more outspoken judges on the matter were Eldad Mwangusya, Remmy Kasule and Kenneth Kakuru of the Court of Appeal, and Catherine Bamugemereire of the High court.

Judiciary sources said Mwangusya called for “fairness” in the way resources are distributed. Kasule also wondered why some employees were entitled to some allowances while their peers of the same level were not.

Bamugemereire, who shot to prominence during the impeachment proceedings against Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, demanded that judicial officers should get a ‘balance sheet’ showing how all the money sent to the judiciary was spent. Bamugemereire blamed the fights in the judiciary on lack of communication and transparency at the top.

“If the judiciary was open in its work, then there would be no fights,” she said.

30 PER CENT

The above discussion turned the spotlight on Dorcus Okalany, the secretary to the judiciary, commonly known as SJ. On the insistence of the judicial officers, Ms Okalany had the budget for the third quarter of the current financial year photocopied and distributed at the conference.

The budget, a copy of which The Observer obtained, led to keen poring and animated conversations, as officers looked out for how well the different interests were catered for. According to judicial officers The Observer has since spoken to, one complaint among the judges is that more money seems to be spent on non-core workplan activities compared to the core function of court sessions.

According to a rough disaggregation of the expenditure, around 30 per cent of the budget is spent on expenses directly related to case management, while about 70 per cent of the budget goes to what is termed as “other workplan activities”.

The documents seem to reflect some of these complaints. For instance, for the month of January, 39 chief magistrate’s courts in the country shared about Shs 170m for direct case adjudication-related court expenses. This is an average of Shs 4.36m per court per month.

This includes Shs 700,000 for State Brief – money meant to pay lawyers who offer legal aid to underprivileged suspects in capital offences. In an interview with The Observer, Makerere law professor Christopher Mbazira pointed out that the money paid for state brief was too little, which could explain why many senior lawyers shun state brief.

Each month, however, the Judiciary spends about Shs 200m on travel abroad, with another Shs 100m going directly to travel companies, also for ticketstravel. There is also Shs 200m as part of the cost for the Judges conference and Shs 61m for the New Law Year. This forced one of the judges in Entebbe to ask why the judiciary should hold conferences in expensive hotels instead of spending the money to handle more cases and decongest prison cells.

Another source of concern was the apparent discrepancy between the money officially budgeted for by the judiciary and the money actually disbursed to the offices. For instance, according to the official rates, each High court circuit is meant to receive Shs 14m per month but only Shs 7m is availed. A grade I magistrate is supposed to get Shs 200,000 for managing the court premises but only gets Shs 115,000, raising questions over the balance.

‘NOT 30 PER CENT’

Contacted for a comment late last week, secretary to the judiciary Dorcus Okalany confirmed that the issue of finances came up during the judges’ conference.

“I shared with them the budget and how money is spent,” Okalany told us by telephone.

She, however, rejected the claim that 70 per cent of the budget was spent on recurrent expenditure as opposed to case management. She seemed to challenge the criteria used by complaining judicial officers in categorizing expenses into those for case adjudication and those for non-core operational costs. Her view is that what is being categorized as “other” costs also contribute to case management.

She said financial allocation in the judiciary is determined by a committee comprised of heads of departments, hence her office could not be accused of misallocating resources.

Okalany denied allegations that some officers were getting allowances that their peers at the same level were not getting, although some officers got specific allowances attached to extra work done.

“Every judicial officer is paid a salary and in addition a consolidated allowance of 30 per cent of his or her salary, that is uniform,” she said.

But in terms of salary, judicial officers are paid differently: “You can’t expect, a Supreme court judge to be paid, like a High court judge.”

A separate source in the judiciary had told us that one source of disgruntlement was about which judge got sent out on criminal sessions out of Kampala. Because these sessions are fairly well-funded – with an average allocation of Shs 1m per court to be handled by the judge during the session – judicial officers and support staff deployed there tend to get a bit more money, attracting envious stares from their colleagues.

Okalany seemed to tacitly confirm this as one of the sources of friction, pointing out that the judiciary spends no more than Shs 180 million quarterly on criminal sessions, and that only 20 out of the 49 judges participate in the sessions annually. Those judges, Okalany said, are selected by the principal judge.

UNDERFUNDING

However, senior judicial officials have pointed out that the biggest part of the problem is government’s underfunding of the judiciary. Recently, the Uganda Judicial Officers Association (UJOA) presented a 10-page petition to parliament’s committee on legal and parliamentary affairs, with poor funding among their complaints.

Judicial sources pointed out that if the government does not increase the sector’s funding and remuneration, managers will be forced to continue “improvising” to accommodate administrative expenses while these are crucial for the orderly existence of the judiciary, one official said, they have little impact on reducing the case backlog.

Okalany concurred. She said that this financial year, the judiciary had asked for Shs 333 billion, but got Shs 77bn, which is 23 per cent of the sector’s requirements. This allocation, which is 0.6 per cent of the national budget, is supplemented by Shs 8 billion from the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) – making a total of Shs 85bn.

“The problem is that finances are not enough therefore, finances are allocated according to priorities and workplans,” Okalany said.

And that is what the unhappy judicial officers want to change: priorities.

Source : The Observer

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