Monday, May 20, 2024
In DepthCourts of law creak under pressure amid latest attempt at judicial reform

Courts of law creak under pressure amid latest attempt at judicial reform

Five years ago, Mesganaw Babur, a judge in Mota town, East Gojjam Zone, was placed under arrest for sentencing a court bailiff to a one-month imprisonment term. The bailiff was allegedly harassing and intimidating witnesses that had given testimony before the judge, but woreda and zone police officials accused the judge of sentencing the court officer without due investigation.

Mesganaw was subsequently placed under arrest on suspicions of ‘abuse of power’ and remained there until the president of the regional supreme court intervened and ordered his immediate release.

It is hardly an isolated case in Ethiopia’s convoluted justice system.

There are reports of incidents in the Oromia region where police officers harass or detain judges as retribution for unfavorable rulings. There are several documented cases in federal courts where the police have refused to release detainees despite judge orders, and it is not uncommon to see the police infringe on detainees’ constitutional right to appear before a court of law within 48 hours of being taken into custody. Allegations of intimidation and torture under police custody are also widespread.

On the other side, judges and court officers are often accused of partiality, corruption, and inefficiency, among other things.

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These glaring flaws were on the agenda when nearly all of the country’s judges convened for a two-day summit at the Haile Resort in Adama on April 5, 2024. The attendees included judges from all levels of regional and federal courts as well as supreme court justices.

‘Reform’ was the theme at the summit as judicial officers convened to review an ailing justice system inherited from the EPRDF era, which has only grown more complicated and distorted in the years since.

Uncertainties surrounding transitional justice clauses weighed heavily on the meeting, as regional judiciaries demand their own versions of judicial sovereignty. This, in turn, has diminished judicial efficiency and transparency across Ethiopian courts as they scramble to avoid responsibility and liability for implementing the government’s vague transitional justice initiative.

Other issues, such as unratified legislation that would have granted judges in the Amhara region, such as Mesganaw, immunity from prosecution, were also a topic of discussion.

The Amhara region is among those that lack regional legislation that guarantees the immunity of judges. It is a legislative gap that court officials there have long decried for its potential impact on the freedom and impartiality of justice.

Tewodros Meheret, president of the Federal Supreme Court, acknowledged the gap.

“These cases are regional issues,” he told The Reporter during the summit. “We cannot impose such laws on any regional state. Federal judges have immunity at all levels. What regions decide to do in their own systems is not up to us.” 

A report from the Amhara Supreme Court reveals it has accused no less than 63 judges of judicial misconduct over the first half of the fiscal year, after reviewing close to 3,200 civil and criminal cases. Fourteen of the misconduct cases have been concluded, while the rest are still under investigation.

Amhara Supreme Court justices say they are struggling to implement judicial reform efforts, which rarely make it past the planning stages. The region’s courts are also struggling to deal with a staggering caseload.

Less than 2,200 judges and justices across the region’s 220 courts (202 of which are First Instance courts) took on 826,000 civil and criminal cases last year, according to a report from the regional Supreme Court.

The caseload is made even more daunting by the lack of peace and security in the region, according to AbiyeKassahun, president of the Amhara Regional State Supreme Court.

“As a result of the current security state of our region, courts can not be reached when needed,” he said.

The report reveals security issues are preventing judicial officers in the region from communicating with one another, thereby hampering their ability to hold a unified stance on legal issues.

The President disclosed a lack of funding is also crippling the region’s legal system, as it becomes impossible to sustain day-to-day court services such as maintenance of its Integrated Case Management Information System (ICMIS) and Electronic Recording Management System (ERMS).

“To update these outlets, we need money that we do not have. They’re growing outdated and we’re merely watching,” said Abiye.

He observes budgetary issues are not a new issue.

“Over the years, the Amhara Regional State budget is growing exponentially,” said Abiye. “But, surprisingly, allocations to the courts are growing smaller and smaller.”

He wants to see a separate budget for the proposed judicial reforms, and notes there are misconceptions among regional officials about the actual work involved in the reform program.

“There is no budget specifically assigned for the reform,” said Abiye. “We’ve talked to the stakeholders that can actually extend it, but we see an ‘it can be done with what’s available’ kind of attitude. This is a fundamental challenge.”

Unfortunately, it is not the only fundamental challenge in the judicial system.

A consistent and draining exodus of judges and court officers seeking better pay and working conditions is also taking its toll, finds an assessment carried out by the regional Supreme Court.

“‘What am I doing on this bench? I could double or even triple my salary on the income of a single case, so why bother?’” Abiye echoed responses from judges that had quit.

He says this problem is too large to be handled by the regional Supreme Court alone, and calls for his peers in other regions and in federal courts to join in pushing for higher salaries and better working conditions.

“This is not a regional issue,” said Abiye. “If what’s out there is more lucrative, we will keep losing more capable judges.”

A lack of integration between the Federal Supreme Court and its regional counterparts is also another problem.

“Saying justice in one region is justice in all regions is all good and well, but unless the federal government pools its resources to enable us to fill in all the gaps, they’ll still be there in the regional courts,” said Abiye.

Reforms in the courts of Oromia seem to be getting off to a better start, but still face a lot of the same problems.

Judges and justices across 363 of Oromia’s courts (331 of which are First Instance) took on more than 600,000 cases last year, according to a survey conducted by the Oromia Supreme Court.

The survey revealed lapses in quality, efficiency, and accessibility in Oromia’s judicial system, according to GezaliAbasi, president of the Oromia Supreme Court. He also notes issues with an imbalance between judicial freedom and accountability, as well as challenges in good governance and enforcing capacity.

The establishment proclamation of Oromia’s courts has recently undergone amendment as officials attempt to resolve issues surrounding efficiency and accessibility and redefine the structure, powers and functions distributed among the region’s courts.

“Powers that have for so long been limited to the higher and supreme courts have been transferred to First Instance courts working in woredas,” said Gezali.

A regional judicial administrative council law, that includes the rights and responsibilities of judges, procedures for conferring judgeship, and clauses involving job termination have also been ratified.

The Oromia Supreme Court had also introduced laws that seek to limit the lifespan of legal cases to no more than five court appointments, while appeals are limited to three appointments over three months. Courts finalize close to 96 percent of all cases brought before them, up from 91 percent four years ago, according to the report.

There are also new rules obliging civil cases involving more than 300,000 birr to go under review by no less than three separate court benches, while judges whose rulings are repeatedly overturned in appeal courts are now subject to performance reviews.

The Oromia Supreme Court conducted a survey on the performance of more than 12,600 judges and administrative officials at courts, asking participants to grade them based on their service provision.

“Measures were taken against those who received a ‘D’ quality of service grade,” said Gezali.

He refrained from disclosing what those measures were or how many individuals had actions taken against them.

Gezali says the exodus of judicial officers plaguing courts in the Amhara region is also a problem in Oromia. He observes the problem comes down to working conditions and pay which does not consider the cost of living.

Courts in Oromia are also facing problems with fraudulent evidence and false testimonials in cases. The regional Supreme Court says it is working with the public to spread awareness on the legal consequences of presenting false evidence.

Gezali observes another important problem is contrasting clauses in federal proclamations that pose obstacles for regional judiciaries. Among these are issues related to how cases presented before federal cassation benches are reviewed.

“Regional matters do not get reviewed in federal courts of cassation, but regional courts make their ruling based on federal law,” Gezali said. “Regions are supposed to judge based on their own laws. However, when judges implement this procedure and the cases are reviewed in federal courts, the rulings are thrown out citing the federal proclamations.”

The President calls for integration with federal courts to curb these inconsistencies. He also argues that the translation of ratified federal proclamations into regional working languages is another area that requires attention.

The problems facing courts in Oromia and Amhara are evident elsewhere, casting doubt on the feasibility of the administration’s three-year justice reform plan. The plan is not the first of its kind, not even within the past five years.

A similar initiative undertaken under MeazaAshenafi, former Federal Supreme Court president, did not bear the intended fruit.

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