The Chief Justice of The Gambia has outlined the plan of the Judiciary to tackle the chronic problems delays in the dispensation of justice. He hopes to do so in the face of a dramatic increase in the number of cases.
Justice Hassan B. Jalllow in his speech during the legal year celebration on Sunday said:
“In the year 2022, a total number of 11,568 new cases were filed across all the courts from the Supreme Court to the Subordinate Courts – the magistrates, Cadi courts Children Courts as well as the specialised tribunals. This represents a significant increase of 30% on the 8882 cases for the year 2021.”
He expressed concern at the growing list of cases before the courts and the apparent lack or failure of efforts by parties to civil disputes to settle out of court before, or even during litigation, adding that Litigation in civil matters should be a last resort.
“The courts should only be called upon to settle civil disputes which the parties are unable to resolve,” he said.
“Accordingly the Rules Committee presided over by the Chief Justice and the President of The Gambia Bar Association has adopted an amendment to the Rules of the High Court which now make such efforts at out-of-court settlement mandatory and a condition precedent to the hearing of any civil matter,” he said.
He said the amendment to the Rules will be published and will come into force shortly, backed by training for a corps of mediators, arbitrators and conciliators to support the efforts at out of court settlements.
He said the public concern at delays and the demand for the speedy disposal of cases is a concern and every litigant is entitled under the Constitution to have his or her case heard and determined within a reasonable time.
“Some delay is inherent in the system of justice and is often necessitated by due process and fairness requirements,” he said
He said the overriding goal of every court must be to avoid delays and to hear and determine cases within a reasonable time. He said judicial officers are required to observe punctuality and diligence and be at work on time to avoid unnecessary and prolonged adjournments of cases.
“Deliver judgment when the case is still fresh in your mind. Be guided by the three months target between last adjournment and delivery of judgment set by the Constitution as your objective. Above all demonstrate the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and fairness in your work,” he highlighted.
He said efficient management of criminal cases continues to be their major objective, particularly those accused who are in pretrial detention or remand. The practice instituted of setting aside specified periods of the year for all the courts to focus on criminal cases continued in 2022 with the holding of two such special sessions.
“I propose to supplement that practice with two additional measures to be promulgated in Practice Directions to be issued by the Chief Justice pursuant to Section 143 of the Constitution. Following consultations with relevant stakeholders, I will shortly be setting up a Judiciary Prisons Visiting Committee which will be mandated to visit and audit the remand wings of the prisons and also cases of prisoners on appeal every six months and to report to the Chief Justice on instances of prolonged detention and recommend remedial measures accordingly. The audit will assist in ensuring that accused persons do not linger in prolonged custody without being brought to court,” he promised.
He promised to issue a Practice Direction to Judges and Magistrates requesting them to consider and decide on granting bail or discharging the accused where the prosecution has failed to proceed diligently with a case ninety days after the institution of proceedings.
“This is intended to encourage prosecuting authorities to proceed more expeditiously and diligently with the cases of those charged and remanded into prison custody,” he said.
He said a significant portion of civil cases, which constitute the majority of the case workload of the courts, are land disputes from the West Coast Region. Some of the land disputes involve communities, some emanate from the alleged activities of estate agents.
He warned that “Unresolved disputes over it can have an impact on communal peace and stability. Speedy resolution of land disputes is thus very essential as is the speedy and fair resolution of commercial disputes for the economy.”
He encouraged the government to establish a well-resourced Land and /or commercial Disputes Court as envisaged by the Judiciary Strategic Plan, adding that should be accompanied by the review and reform of the legal sector relating to the land to provide for a more efficient and effective system of land administration.
He said the estate agency sector remains unregulated and needs an urgent address for the enactment of laws that regulate the activities of estate agents including their registration, qualification, supervision, and discipline.
He further said that it is now proposed to provide a legal framework for the establishment and operations of the Judicial Training Institute as an autonomous body whose mandate will now extend to providing training for not only judicial officers but also for all legal officers and law enforcement agents in the public service, adding that the are looking forward to the early enactment of the legislation and the commencement of the Institute’s operations under a full-time management guided by a Board of Directors.
He said in the course of the new legal year their primary focus will naturally be on the core activity of the judiciary i.e the hearing and determination of cases fairly, efficiently, and expeditiously, and other matters that impact on the discharge of their mandate, improving the physical infrastructure of the courts, particularly with additional courtrooms, more office space and better storage for our archives and exhibits, the reform of our rules following the conclusion of the consultancy to review them, greater use of technology particularly in recording and transcription of court proceedings and in case management and they will continue to improve the capacity of our human resources through recruitment and training, better staff supervision and performance evaluation.
He said in ensuring accountability for the crimes identified by the TRRC will create a substantial additional workload for our courts, adding that they need to strengthen the capacity of our courts to manage this workload quickly and efficiently.
“I propose therefore shortly to establish by Constitutional Order a Special Criminal Division of the High Court to hear and determine these cases as well as other serious criminal cases which fall outside the scope of the TRRC,” he said.