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Using census to fight case backlog in courts

Moses Kasolo has been on remand for the last five years. Every time he goes for a court hearing, it does not take off because his case file “disappeared”. He is resigned to his fate and doubts that the case will be disposed of.

Kasolo’s case is part of the cluster of files that catergorise case backlog.

To clear the uncertainty over the monster of case backlog in the country, the Judiciary is set to carry out a two-day nationwide physical case file counting exercise today and tomorrow (December 10-11).

This initiative will be the first of its kind in the history of the Judiciary since independence in 1962.

Statistics from the Judiciary indicates that the case backlog could be standing at more than 160,000 cases. Some cases are as old as 20 years.

The problem at hand

Case backlog, which is a major challenge the Judiciary is grappling with, refers to the uncompleted cases that have stayed in the justice system for more than two years from the date of filing without judgment being passed.

The administrative head of the High Court, Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine recently at a function at Mukono Chief Magistrate’s Court, explained physical counting of the case files will help in planning in as far as recruitment of more judicial officers to manage the existing cases.

“We want to deal away with this question of case backlog by physically counting all the files in our justice system,” he said.

He added: “I know it will not be an easy job but let’s do it. There will be files that will be full of dust but after counting them, the dust will be removed and the cases heard.

“The counting will also help us to know the number of pending files and this will in turn help us to tell the President of our workload so that he may give us more judicial officers...”

Notification

The Chief Registrar, Paul Gadenya Wolimbwa, in a notice to registrars and magistrates said the census is a stock-taking exercise to identify all pending cases and weed out dead or non-existent cases in court registries.

“For purposes of the census, pending cases include cases that are reserved for judgment, alternative dispute resolution, plea bargaining and appeals, pending filing of the memoranda of appeal. Non-existent cases have the ordinary meaning and include cases that were concluded but are still reflected in court registers and on the computerised case administration system,” he explained.

The notice copied to the Chief Justice, police, prisons authorities and other stakeholders stated that all the courts will be closed to the general public during the national case census except for those filing court pleadings, which are likely to be time barred and criminal cases for processing of pleas and bail where appropriate.

“All the heads of stations shall be responsible for ensuring that the census goes on smoothly and that the results of the census are submitted to the collection centres that shall be designated in due course.

“Judicial officers who run more than one court such as chief magistrates will be required to coordinate the exercise at all the courts under their supervision,” he said.

The Chief Registrar said that customised stationery will be provided to cater for for incidental expenses.

“It should be emphasised that the census does not constitute additional work but is part and parcel of the routine work of the courts.”

“The Chief Justice directs all judicial staff to inform the general public about the census and not to fix cases on the days of the census and where cases had been fixed on these days, to give parties new hearing dates,” Gadenya said.

The taskforce

Meanwhile, the judiciary has set up a 14-man team led by Justice Henry Peter Adonyo to prepare, coordinate and oversee the execution of the exercise.

According to Andrew Khaukha, the secretary of the taskforce, the team will spearhead the case census at all courts to inform the transformation of the Judiciary into an “efficient, effective and accountable institution.”

Objective

Chief Bart Katureebe in Office Instruction Number 4 of 2015 says the overall objective of the taskforce is “to establish the number of pending cases in the courts of judicature and their status.”

He adds, “It is now agreed that the Judiciary with the assistance of a dedicated Taskforce carries out a national court case census to inform the transformation of the Judiciary into an efficient, effective and accountable institution that is capable of delivering timely and expeditious justice to all Ugandans.”

History of census

A census is the gathering of information about all the people in a particular country or region. Taking censuses is an old tradition. For example, in ancient Rome, the government would periodically count all the citizens and evaluate their property in order to see how much tax a person should pay. In modern times, many countries conduct regular censuses, usually every five or 10 years. Institutions carry out census to inform their planning processes.

Will this work?

When census is mentioned, many people think of population census carried out by governments. The reality is that outside government, institutions use census information to help them develop programmes, while businesses use it to decide where to build various facilities, such as factories and shopping malls.

In the case of judiciary, it is to identify pending cases and devise a holistic approach to fight this backlog. A pre-test of the census was carried out at sampled courts on December 2. The purpose was to establish whether the instrument is workable and feasible in achieving the census objective. The exercise was supervised by the taskforce members to assess the viability of the instrument. The taskforce will then identify cross-cutting issues before compiling their findings in a report and handing them to the Chief Justice.

Andrew Khaukha, the secretary of the taskforce says all is set for the exercise. “We have dispatched teams at the 13 High Court circuits as well as the magisterial areas within them. Members of the team will do specific counting of the files. The specific things they are looking for are spelt out on the data entry sheets.”

Asked how prepared they are for this exercise, Khaukha says the secretariat has been working with the Uganda of Bureau of Statistics in how to adequately carry out the enumeration exercise. He further adds that the taskforce has held several capacity building workshops.

At the National Plea Bargaining Conference in July, Justice Katureebe in his speech said it is impossible to have a modern Judiciary without ascertaining the backlog. As such, people such as Kasolo hope such a manual counting of files will enable the courts dispose of their cases as soon as possible.

Census will inform Judiciary decisions

Justice Henry Peter Adonyo the National Court Census Taskforce chairperson, says the Chief Justice issued Office Instruction Number Four to oversee the National Court Case Census in all courts of judicature. The decision to do a physical count was in response to continued public outcry on delayed justice. It was also informed by the chief justices meeting in New Zealand to ascertain case backlog in their jurisdictions so as to allocate personnel and resources accordingly. He adds that the exercise is being carried out at this time so as to plan for the next law year which starts in January.

Shs120m has been allocated for the two-day exercise as well as the final completion of the report.

On how the 14 member team will reach the more than 200 court houses across the country, Justice Adonyo says the taskforce has co-opted people from different Justice Law and Order Sector institutions to help monitor the exercise.

“We have co-opted people different JLOS institutions who will be helping us to ensure that the exercise goes on smoothly. Although the courts will not be operational to the public, the personnel there will be present to ensure that the process is smoothly done.”

He added that for checking and validation purposes, there will be custom-made stickers which will be put on the files for future verification.

Justice Adonyo says although this is the first court case census, it will certainly not be the last since the judiciary intends to use this tool to ascertain perceived backlog in the system.

swamboga@ug.nationmedia.com

SOURCE: DAILY MONITOR

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