By Yankuba Jallow
Hassan B. Jallow, the Chief Justice of the Gambia has called on the Gambia Government to look into the conditions of service of judicial officers, particularly as regards their retirement benefits.
Two Supreme Court Judges in the persons of Justices Raymond C. Sock and Gibril B. Samega Janneh retired after attaining the mandatory retirement age for judges in 2021.
Justice Jallow said the Judicial Service Commission would be submitting their recommendation to the President for the replacement of the two retired judges in the Supreme Court panel.
“Their departure has however highlighted the need for the Government to take necessary measures to improve the Conditions of Service of judicial officers, particularly as regards their retirement benefits,” Jallow stated while addressing a gathering on Sunday at the official opening of the Legal Year 2022.
The event was graced by the President of the Republic Adama Barrow, cabinet ministers, and judges of the superior courts, magistrates, cadis, lawyers, district chiefs, notary publics and commissioners for oath among other judicial officers. The Theme for this year’s legal year celebrations is “The Use of Technology to enhance efficiency and the Rule of Law in the Judiciary.”
Justice Jallow said it is important to bear in mind that retired judges are prohibited by law from engaging in legal practice, adding while at office they cannot do so either. He explained that this is a good law meant to promote and secure the impartiality of judges.
“But unless special retirement benefits are provided by law for judges, as obtain in other Commonwealth countries applying the same rule, judges will retire into penury and poverty following a life time of public service,” Jallow said.
He emphasised that this is highly undesirable and impacts on the drive to attract and retain suitable Gambians to the Bench and indeed the overall strength of the Bench. He urged the President to pay particular attention to this matter.
He used the occasion to unveil Sulayman Samba and Mary Samba as members of the Judicial Service Commission.
Jallow said the Government of the United States of America has provided them the sum of $4.35 million in support of justice sector projects in The Gambia, some of which fall under the Judiciary Strategic Plan.
The Chief Judge said in 2021 a total of 8,882 cases were registered across all the courts in the Gambia out of which they were able to dispose of 4,822 cases. This represents 54.3% of the total number of cases registered.
Justice Jallow said this is a commendable effort by the adjudicators, but was quick to add much is needed to be done by way of strengthening the Judiciary with additional court rooms, human resources and other facilities and by encouraging other alternative ways of resolving disputes to supplement the judicial process.
In order to decongest the prisons and accelerate the hearing of criminal cases, Justice Jallow said the Judiciary devoted July and August 2021 exclusively to the hearing and determination of criminal cases, particularly of those in remand custody. He added that this exercise would continue after the Easter vacation of the courts.
Justice Jallow said the Judiciary is conscious that there is room for further improvement case management by the courts in order to reduce, if not eliminate, avoidable delays and dispose of cases more expeditiously.
He said the completion of the new court complex in Bundung slated to accommodate 2 high courts, 2 magistrates’ courts and 2 Cadi courts, the acute shortage of court room space in the Greater Banjul Area, which obviously impacts negatively on the hearing and disposal of cases – stands to be slightly ameliorated. He said they are looking forward for the timely release of funds by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs for furniture and equipment to ensure that the new court complex becomes operational without further delay.
He said with the provision of 40 million dalasis in the 2022 budget for infrastructure development, the Judiciary is planning to expand its infrastructure by commencing the construction of a new court complex in Brikama for the West Coast Region similar to the one in Bundung and the construction of an archives and administration building in Banjul. He said both projects will span two years and will be completed in 2023.
He said West Coast Region is the largest judicial district of the high court and the origin of the majority of the cases, adding that the court rooms are not adequate in West Coast.
Justice Jallow said harnessing modern technology is one of the ways in which the efficiency of court processes can be significantly improved. He explained that virtual courts conducted remote hearings with the use of technology in Banjul and were rolled out subsequently to the magistrates’ courts in Banjul, Kanifing and Brikama.
“Suffice to say, the system [virtual court hearing] was helpful in the disposal of bail and other applications and especially in the hearing of criminal cases during the month of July/August last year,” he said.
He mentioned that the virtual court was also particularly useful in the hearing and determination of cases at the high court relating to electoral matters in 2021.
“The challenge, however, faced in the operation of this system of remote hearings is the too frequent interruption in internet connectivity,” he said.
On the court’s archaic recording system, Justice Jallow said the CATS System of recording and transcription of court proceedings to a more extensive and permanent system. He said as a pilot project, the CATS (Case Administration and Tracking System) transcription system was successfully utilized in December 2021 and January 2022 session of the Supreme Court.
“With donor support, we plan to have in place within the next eighteen months a system for recording and transcription of proceedings in all superior courts,” he said.
He said it would eventually be rolled down to the subordinate courts.
“The system of mechanical recording and transcription of court proceedings will, by replacing the handwriting of the judicial officers, expedite the trials as well as the preparation of records for appeals, a process that currently takes considerable time and effort,” he said.
He said the Judicial Service Commission appointed five new Cadis two days ago, including two females in the persons of Fatima Sowe and Mariama Jatta, for the first time in the history of the Gambia.
He said three new high court judges have been appointed in the persons of Isatou Janneh – the most senior Principal Magistrate at Kanifing Magistrates’ Court, Sidi K. Jobarteh – Principal Magistrate at the Banjul Magistrates’ Court and Sheriff Tabally – the current Master and Registrar of the Court. He added the three will be posted at Bundung, Brikama and one will be posted as the resident high court judge in Mansakonko with jurisdiction over the Lower River Region and North Bank Region. He said Justice Landing M. Sanneh will be based in Basse as the resident Judge with jurisdiction over Upper and Central River regions.
“These appointment and postings will ensure full time countrywide coverage by the high court and facilitate access to justice in the rural areas,” he said.
Judicial Secretary Aisatou Jallow-Sey said remote hearings have made life easier for lawyers who have been relieved from having to waste time to travel and are now opportune to have their cases heard at the comfort of their offices. She said the courts have achieved greater technological advancement in the last two years owing to the pandemic than it would have had in a decade. She emphasized that, that digitally operated courts are here to stay even when the pandemic goes.
“There is no turning back,” she said.