28 August 2017

Uganda: Judicial Strike - Judges Abandon Magistrates

Photo: Daily Monitor
Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine, left, and Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire in a discussion during the Uganda Judicial Officers Association extraordinary meeting at Kampala High Court last month.

An ongoing judicial officers' strike over poor pay announced on Thursday evening by the Uganda Judicial Officers Association (UJOA) has so far been shunned by High court judges, especially those based in Kampala.

Some judges interviewed at the weekend said they are heeding Chief Justice Bart Katureebe's call to ignore the industrial action. The strike is largely supported by magistrates who are among the lowest-paid judicial officers.

When the strike was announced by the president of Uganda Judicial Officers Association (UJOA), Godfrey Kaweesa, on Thursday evening, magisterial courts remained closed on Friday, leaving many litigants stranded.

However, judges at different High court divisions in Kampala and the Court of Appeal, which doubles as the Constitutional court, turned up for work.

Magistrates at the busy Buganda Road court stayed away but the nearby Commercial court heard cases and some rulings were delivered.

At the Lands division of the High court, Justice Andrew Bashaija, who heads the court, heard cases on Friday. At the adjacent Civil division of the High court, which is in vacation, some of its judges such as Margret Oumo-Oguli and Lydia Mugambe reported for work.

JUDGES SPEAK

Asked if at all he would comply with the UJOA call for strike action, Justice David Wangutusi, the head of the Commercial court, said he knows nothing about the strike.

"I heard that there were messages on WhatsApp calling for industrial action and I don't take such seriously," Justice Wangutusi said, adding, "So, today [Friday], I worked and I will continue working. Even other judges here at the Commercial court have worked."

Though he worked on Friday, Justice Wilson Kwesiga, who heads the Criminal division of the High court, declined to discuss the strike in an interview.

"I'm not going to talk about that stuff," he said and referred this writer to the judiciary's public relations officer.

UJOA's call for industrial action seemed to defy Chief Justice Bart Katureebe's plea for more time. Katureebe had earlier pleaded with all judicial officers not to lay down their tools. He said he is still engaging government to address their issues.

In his three-page letter dated August 22, 2017, Justice Katureebe told UJOA that during several meetings with the association's leadership, he warned them against striking.

"Top management of the judiciary met on Tuesday, August 22, 2017, and considered the matter," Katureebe wrote.

"Our advice to you and all judges and judicial officers is that it would be ill-advised at this time to proceed with industrial action."

Katureebe further assured UJOA that he was scheduled to meet President Museveni in two weeks.

The chief justice said the president is also concerned that judicial officials are paid so little. He said the president plans to meet with judicial officers.

In an interview on Friday, Justice Lawrence Gidudu, the head of the Anti-Corruption court, said he heeded Katureebe's advice to continue working.

"The chief justice is the chief justice. He is not like anybody else," said Gidudu, who is currently on his annual leave.

"If he says he is working on this issue, you have to give him a benefit of the doubt."

"So, I think the Anti-Corruption court will continue working. Even me, if I wasn't on leave, I would be working," he added.

Justice Katureebe, in his letter, implored UJOA not to strike, citing a constitutional petition recently filed at the Constitutional court challenging the low pay of judicial officers.

COURT CASE OVER PAY

Indeed, The Observer has seen the petition filed by former Oyam North MP Krispus Ayena Odongo. In the petition, Odongo, a lawyer, says the rights of judicial officers enshrined in the Constitution are being violated by them being paid poorly compared to other government employees.

"That whereas the heads of other government organs and agencies for example, the inspector general of government, who was appointed by virtue of being a High court judge, earns Shs 17,875,000; the Principal judge, who heads the High court, justices of the Supreme court, justices of the Court of Appeal, judges of the High court earn Shs 10,532,581, Shs 9,688,506 and Shs 9,358,216, respectively," Odongo says in his petition, in which he has listed the attorney general, who is government's chief legal adviser, and the Parliamentary Commission, as respondents.

In the petition, Odongo accuses the Parliamentary Commission in particular of failing to enact a law for the administration of the judiciary which, according to him, would have gone a long way in enabling the judiciary to be an independent organ of the state, equal in stature to the legislature and the executive.

Accordingly, he says leaving the judiciary to fall under the public service as the case is currently, is inconsistent with the Constitution.

To demonstrate the judiciary's marginalization in terms of remuneration, Odongo lists salaries of different public officials.

He lists Bank of Uganda governor (Shs 53m), KCCA Executive Director (Shs 43.7), Commissioner General, URA (Shs 40m), managing director, NSSF (Shs 39.7) and executive director, Uganda Communications Commission (36.9m).

That, he says, is in sharp contrast to the salary of the chief justice, who is the head of the third arm of the state who earns (Shs 20m), the deputy chief justice (Shs 18m), the principal judge who earns (Shs 10m).

The disparity in the salary scales and other emoluments vis-à-vis the above protocol list, Odongo says, is simply a mockery of judicial officers in the country.

On Friday, all suspects that were due for trial or bail applications at all magistrates' courts countrywide were taken back to prison without hearing of their cases.

Meanwhile, suspects still in police custody will also remain detained unless police offers them a bond. This is likely to continue until UJOA calls off the strike.

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