Cases pile up and corruption thrives as Uganda's cash-strapped judiciary fails to attract judges
Although up to 20 vacancies exist in the Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, and High Court, attempts to fill them are failing because qualified individuals are shunning the bench over poor pay and pension, and other terms and conditions.
Low pay apart, the general underfunding of the judiciary is also undermining the process of searching for suitable candidates. The sector was allocated Shs 15.3 billion in this year's budget, leaving it with a Shs 90 billion deficit. But the new Supreme Court building on the dust-free Upper Kololo Terrace in the upscale suburb of neatly manicured lawns belies these frustrations. With the Germany embassy on one side, a top hotel on the other, and the Turkish embassy on the side, the country's highest court has powerful neighbours living in little beautiful early 20th century colonial mansions behind high gates.
Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki, who likes to work there although his office is in the High Court Building in the crowded city centre, often arrives chauffeured in either a limousine or in the latest model four-wheel SUV with security escort.
With a huge frame that he often squeezes in neat dark suits, his neatly coiffured short hair -possibly dyed- and swanky rimless glasses, he looks quite imposing as he disembarks after a police officer opens his car door. As chief justice, he is entitled to a Shs 5.9 million salary (approx. US$2300) per month, flying first class, and a furnished house and medical allowance of about US$ 150 every month. Total salary: Shs 6.2 million. He is not happy.
He wants a 300% raise in his monthly salary to Shs 15 million, a house or housing allowance of Shs 7 million, medical Insurance for self, spouse and four biological children, responsibility allowance of Shs 5 million, education allowance of Shs 4 million, utilities allowance of Shs 3 million, non-practicing allowance of Shs 3 million and domestic servants allowance of Shs 1 million. Total: Shs 38 million.
The breakdown was made by the Secretary to the Judiciary, Dorcus Okalany, during the 14th Annual Judges Conference at Munyonyo Resort in Kampala on Jan. 9. Speaking on ways to improve the terms and conditions of judges, she pointed out eight reasons why judges need to be better paid including the need to maintain their status in society, the risks they take, and are barred from engaging in other money-making ventures or borrowing.
If the judges pay is deplorable, ask retired Justice Prof. George Kanyeihamba about what happens when they retire, generally at age 70.
Until November 2009, Kanyeihamba was a justice of the Supreme Court. In that position, he was entitled to be chauffeured in the latest four-wheel drive with escorts to open the door, fly first class, and earn a US$2,584.4 (Approx.Shs6.5 million) salary a month, and housing, medical allowances. Not anymore. He now gets a pension of Shs 900,000 only.
At the launch of his semi-autobiographical book, The Blessings and Joy of Being Who You Are, Kanyeihamba - who is one Uganda's most decorated judges, was not in celebratory mode as he told of falling on hard times since he retired. He told the crowd at the book signing on August 2 in a Kampala hotel that the Shs900,000 (Approx. US$360) barely covers the salary of his guard and a driver, leaving almost nothing for him.
While a few cynical voices in the crowd could have thought Kanyeihamba's lament was designed to anesthetise them into coughing up the Shs 50,000 cover price for his book, an investigation by The Independent reveals that the issue of remuneration of judges is becoming a major concern.
A prominent lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity for obvious reasons said it is rather naive to expect a judge to hear a dispute worth billions when he is going to be paid only Shs 4 million at the end of the month. Unsurprisingly, the judiciary is ranked among the top most corrupt institutions in Uganda.
Justice Ogoola, whose integrity is generally unquestionable, said only those few judges with strong hearts are able to resist bribe temptations.
"Most of them eventually give in and that will erode the credibility and integrity of the institution," he told a committee of Parliament. In the book, Kanyeihamba raps Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki for looking the other away whenever cases of corruption in the judiciary are referred to him. In January, however, the chief justice blamed the high rates of corruption in the judiciary sector on low remuneration. He said his current pay as the head of the judiciary is laughable. He said a chief justice deserves Shs 50 million a month.
Okalany said the justices of the Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, and High Court judges who earn about Shs 5 million a month need to be paid between Shs 34 million and 26 million. If Okalany's proposal is implemented, the lowest paid judicial officer, the magistrate Grade II, who currents earns about Shs 500,000 a month, would be paid Shs6.6 million. The proposed payment structure is therefore, unlikely to be implemented. Why then are the judicial officers proposing it?
Part of it has to do with timing. For some time now, many offices in the nation's top courts have been empty for after judges either retired or resigned and have not been replaced. In the latest case, former deputy chief justice, Alice Mpagi Bahegeine, retired in July and has not been replaced. Other prominent retirees include former Supreme Court justices, Prof. George Kanyeihamba , Prof. Joseph Nyamihana Mulenga, and Leticia Kikionyogo of the Constitutional Court. Before that Justice John Bosco Katutsi of the High Court, and Principle Judge James Ogoola . Older names like Justice Julia Sebutinde of High Court often come up in these discussions. Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki is expected to retire next year together with Supreme Court John Wilson Tsekoko. Recently, High Court judge Irene Mulyagonja quit becoming Inspector General of Government. That is a lot of positions that need to be filled. Unfortunately, there are no takers, according to Justice James Ogoola, who heads the Judicial Service Commission which is responsible for filling the slots. While appearing before the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee recently, he said lawyers who could be potential judges lack the incentive to take over the positions because of the laughable pay that Uganda's judges get.
"Asking a lawyer who earns one billion shillings from just one case to take on a job in a sector where the head earns only five million a month is like asking a rock to yield blood," Ogoola said.
Members of the judiciary like to compare their salaries with their regional counterparts, but it is difficult to independently verify the figures because the calculation of salary and allowances vary.
One report says, the Kenya chief justice earns KShs1.2 million (Approx. UShs 35 million) while the judges earn the equivalent of UShs16 million. Members of Parliament in Kenya earn the equivalent of UShs 23 million. What the Ugandan MPs earn is about five times higher than the Chief Justice's salary.
But in Kenya, the only people that earn a higher salary than the Chief Justice and his deputy are the President who earn Ksh 2million (about UShs 56 million) and the Prime Minister and Vice President who earn Ksh 1.8 million (UShs 50 million).
In terms of allowances, Okalany says a judge in the court of appeal in Kenya is entitled to non-practicing allowance: US$ 157.4, domestic allowance: US$ 181.6, house allowance: US$ 968.4, entertainment allowance: US$1028.9, extraneous allowance: US$ 883.7, responsibility allowance: US$ 145.3, transport allowance: US$ 78.7 per month, robe allowance: US$ 60.5 per year, and leave Allowance: US$ 139.2 per year. Total: Approx. US$2,500, which is about UShs 6 million per month.
Justice Ogoola says in Kenya, retired judges earn 80 percent of their former salary while a judge who had been earning Shs 4 million a month gets only Shs 400,000 a month upon retirement.
Vacant positions under the current structure
- Court of Appeal/Constitutional Court - 9
- Supreme Court - 6
- High Court - 5
Vacant positions under the proposed structure
- Court of Appeal/Constitutional Court - 20
- Supreme Court - 15
- High Court - 100
- Cases pile-up
He said the offices that decide the salaries of judges in Uganda need to ask themselves what Shs 400,000 can do in a month. He said the recruitment process might take even longer because with such conditions no one is in any hurry to go into the judiciary.
Meanwhile, the backlog of unheard cases continues to grow according to the Spokesperson of the Judiciary, Erias Kisawuzi. By June when the judiciary issued its latest figures, 140,000 cases were pending and only 38,000 had been heard for the period. Although the number of pending cases has hovered around that figure since 2009, the number of completed cases has dropped. In 2006, the judiciary completed 80,000 cases.
The JSC, which recommends to the President officials for appointment as judges with approval from parliament, has therefore come under fire for allegedly delaying the process of recruiting new judges.
But Ogoola said three nominees he had spotted withdrew from the race because they got "greener pastures". He wondered why this important arm of government is treated with so little regard.
"Go to other countries and ask how judges are treated," he said, "In UK, the chief Justice earns more that the Prime Minister."
However, it looks like low pay is not the only problem in the judiciary. There is a general underfunding of the sector. The Judicial Service Commission Secretary, Kagole Kivumbi, told The Independent that there is no money to facilitate the process of appointing judges which requires advertising, training and investigating the candidates. The commission has so far advertised, interviewed and shortlisted the nominees instead of the older method of consulting the stakeholders like the Uganda Law Society. Kivumbi said the commission has just shortlisted the judges for the Supreme Court, advertised for the Court of Appeal judges, while the process of recruiting High Court judges has not begun.
The sector was allocated Shs 15.3 billion in this year's budget but according to the team from the judiciary that appeared before the parliamentary legal affairs committee, the sector has a deficit of about Shs 90 billion. About Shs 22 billion is needed for the maintenance of the 20 judges that need to be appointed. Each judge comes along with seven officials all of whose salaries should be considered.
Kisawuzi told The Independent that under the current structure nine judges are needed in the court of appeal, six in the Supreme Court and five in the High Court. That adds up to the 20 judges that the Secretary to the Judiciary, Dorcus Okalany, recently told parliament are to be appointed soon. But, she said, they will not be enough.
There will still be a shortfall of over 30 judges since parliament refused to increase the number of High Court judges from 50 to 80 as the judiciary had suggested.
Kisawuzi agrees with her. He says Uganda needs about 135 judges; 100 in the High Court, 20 in the Court of Appeal and about 15 in the Supreme Court. He said the population has increased, crimes increased and the public has also become enlightened enough to know their rights and to demand justice. He warned that the pending cases will not be resolved as soon as is required if the issue of increasing the number of judges is not considered. Fortunately, the omens look good. The Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Kahinda Otafiiire has joined the push to get parliament to consider revising judges' salaries this financial year. President Yoweri Mseveni, who has previously not shown urgency in appointing judges, should be lobbied next.
Court Constituted of Now has To be appointed Judiciary says ideal number should be
- Court of appeal 15 7 8 20
- Supreme court 11 5 6 15
- High court 50 43 7 100