By Yankuba Jallow
The Chief Justice of The Gambia Hassan B. Jallow, on Sunday February 3rd 2019 presided over the official opening of the 2019 Legal Year. The occasion was graced by lawyers from the Bar and Bench. The ceremony was held at the Law Courts Complex on Independence Drive in Banjul.
Speaking at the gathering, Justice Jallow reminded the people that the legal year was first celebrated on 21st November 1982, at the McCarthy Square; that the occasion was consistently marked annually from 1982 up to 1994; that since then, it has been intermittently recognized until this year.
He said the celebration is not only a matter of pomp and pageantry, but an occasion for stocktaking and reflection on the achievements and challenges facing the judicature and the machinery of justice, to enable them identify appropriate strategies to meet these challenges.
Justice Jallow said one of the great challenges facing the judiciary, is the acute shortage of appropriate Courtrooms and office space; that the Greater Banjul Area suffers from acute shortage of Courtrooms and office space with several magistrates sharing or queuing for Courtrooms and thus barring their optimal operation. He said the Court of Appeal has no Courtroom of its own, but shares with the Supreme Court.
He said the judiciary continues to face serious challenges with filling vacancies for judges in the High Court. ‘‘The high Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction and it is the first instance Court for most serious criminal cases such as murder, manslaughter, rape, economic crimes etc. It enjoys original jurisdiction for most serious civil and criminal matters including land disputes involving questions of title. It has exclusive original jurisdiction in the enforcement of fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. It hears all appeals from the subordinate magistrates Courts and district tribunals,’’ he said. He added that the high Court is understaffed and the judges are seriously overloaded with each judge managing at least 120 cases at any moment.
“Currently, the High Court is operating well below capacity with only eight of its fourteen budgeted posts of judges, vacant. The high vacancy rate is an undesirable situation which should not be allowed to continue. It will if not checked, impact very soon and seriously on the progress of cases, causing considerable delays in their hearing and determination. Gambians must themselves take responsibility for providing justice to their compatriots,” the Chief Justice stated.
He called on members of the Bar to make themselves available for the common good of the nation; that in order to further facilitate dealing with vacancies, the judiciary will also be submitting proposals to Government for review and amendment of the Constitutional provisions relating to the appointment of High Court Judges, with a view to facilitating the elevation of suitably qualified officers of the subordinate magistrates Courts to the High Court.
He disclosed that the judiciary has submitted to the Constitutional Review Commission, a memorandum outlining a number of recommendations which are designed to enhance the independence and overall efficiency of the administration of justice. He maintained that there has been some significant progress in strengthening the capacity of the judiciary, in terms of human resources, infrastructure, equipment and training, to more effectively discharge of its core mandate of adjudication; that the Supreme Court has been fully reconstituted with four Gambian judges in the persons of Justice Gibril Samega Janneh, Justice Raymond C. Sock, Justice Cherno Sulayman Jallow, Justice Mary Mam Yassin Sey and himself.
“The situation is that the Court (Supreme Court) is now able to sit with a full complement of local judges, and to sit more frequently,” he said. He said the Gambia Court of Appeal has seen a full Gambianisation of its complement of seven judges in the persons of Honourable Justices Edrissa F. Mba’I, Njie, Naceesay Sallah-Wadda, Haddy C. Roche, Basiru V.P. Mahoney, Kumba Sillah-Camara and Awa Bah (the president); that he has revived and reconstituted the Judiciary Ethics Committee, enhance staff conduct and performance comprising Justice Raymond Sock as Chairperson, assisted by Justice Sallah Wadda and Justice Haddy Roche. He said the Committee is mandated to monitor and investigate the conduct of judges, magistrates and cadis, to ensure compliance with the code of conduct for judicial officers. He said the 2019 budget of the judiciary for the establishment of a Human Resource and Monitoring Unit, is designed to improve staff management and performance. Justice Jallow said the judiciary is pleased that Government has in the 2019 budget, provided the sum of D25 million dalasi for the Construction of a new Court complex in Kombo, to cater for additional space for the High Court, the magistrates and cadi Courts. Jallow unveiled that a sum of D1,000,000 has been budgeted for preliminary works on the establishment of a complex in Kombo, for a new specialized commercial and land disputes Court, in order to expedite adjudication in these very critical areas; that the sum of D2,500,000 has also been provided in the 2019 judiciary budget for preliminary work, on improving the IT infrastructure of the judiciary.
On the success of the judiciary in 2017 and 2018, Jallow revealed that out of 4,458 cases before the magistrates Courts countrywide, 3,196 of the case were heard and determined; that for the High Court, out of 1,719 cases, 883 were heard and determined whereas 836 cases, were carried forward into 2019; that out of 58 appeal cases filed before the Cadi Appeals Panel in 2017, 53 were concluded with only 5 pending determination; that in 2018, 51 appeals were filed before the Cadi Appeals Panel of which 30 were concluded and the remaining 21 carried over to 2019.
He explained that the subordinate Cadi Courts countrywide in 2017, had a total docket of 1,141 cases of which 613 were disposed of, carrying forward 528 cases into 2018; that in 2018, the caseload of the first instance Cadi Courts was 1,304 cases of which 678, had been heard and determined by the end of 2,018.
“The entire Cadi Court system in 2017 and 2018, had a total caseload of 2,554 cases, of which 1,287 had been concluded by end 2018,” he said; that as of the end of January 2019, the Gambia Court of Appeal has only 67 cases pending before it, whereas the Supreme Court has 33 pending cases; that the Supreme Court has heard and delivered judgment in 50 of the 83 cases filed before it, since 2017. “The national caseload is 7,613 cases in all Courts for 2017 and 2018. In 2017 and 2018, 5,538 cases were heard and determined,” he said. He said the society is becoming extremely litigious because of the number of pending cases before the Courts.
“The current caseload of the Courts is too heavy for the system. An overburdened judicial system will only lead to further delays in the disposal of cases and sometimes their poor management,” he said.
He said litigation should not be the first resort of a dispute and therefore, urged all Gambians to deploy out of Court settlement first and foremost, before instituting legal proceedings. He called on community leaders to promote and encourage the settlement of disputes out of Court.
He said the primary challenge for any judicial system lies in its independence and impartiality; that there has been some progress towards the administrative and financial autonomy of the judiciary, as envisaged by the Constitution. He said the 2019 judiciary was tabled before the National Assembly without any alteration by the Executive.
“The judiciary requires more Courtrooms and office space for the optional functioning of the Courts with a new Supreme Court and Court of Appeal Complex, additional space for magistrates in the Greater Banjul Area, and more Cadi Courtrooms countrywide, a new Court complex for commercial and land disputes Courts. We need more judges for the High Court preferably recruited locally, with improved conditions of services for recruitment and retention of judicial officers. We need to improve the working methods and systems in the judiciary, moving away from the slow, inefficient manual systems to harness the benefits of modern technology for greater efficiency particularly in the recording and transcription of Court proceedings, and in the storage and management of the judicial records. We need better transport arrangements for judicial officers. This is a necessity to ensure their security and insulation from particularly being compromised by the use of public transport. We need to strengthen alternative dispute resolution systems in order to ensure that litigation is a last resort. Outdated rules of procedure and practice which hinders speedy and fair disposal of cases need to be reviewed and reformed. Our Law Reform and Law Reporting institutions need to be strengthened to discharge the very important functions entrusted to them, to respectively ensure that our laws are modern, relevant and fair, and the judgments of the superior Courts in common law jurisdictions such as ours, in which the principle of stare decisis applies, are edited and published,” he concludes.
Justice Jallow informed that on Wednesday February 6th 2019, the judiciary will be convening a workshop to deliberate on the Judiciary’s Five Year Strategic Plan.