By Ibrahim Kabba Turay
The judiciary of Sierra Leone is one of the three arms of government. Over the past four years, the leadership of the judiciary has undertaken some physical reforms. This piece of writing would attempt to conduct a thorough diagnosis on how the judiciary has been operating in terms of the delivery of fair justice to all and sundry under the New Direction administration.
The judiciary is currently headed by Chief Justice Babatunde Edwards who was appointed by President Julius Maada Bio in December 2018 after the general elections.
Undoubtedly, Justice Edwards has undertaken series of reforms, but popular lawyer and human right activist; Augustine Sorie-Sengbeh Marrah, has described the Judiciary under the New Direction administration as extremely abysmal in terms of the delivery of fair justice for all and sundry.
While the Public Relations Officer 2, Francis H.Murray said reforms in the judiciary run from infrastructural upgrade to increase in access to Justice, and expansion of the court system, as well as staff capacity building, Marrah charged that the judiciary has not made significant gains over the past four years under the New Direction Administration.
Murray said when Justice Edwards took over the judiciary; it was jam-packed with cases involving both the Magistrate Court and the High Court, a situation he said created untidy and confusing scenes around the court building.
He said Justice Edwards decided to separate both courts and transferred all Magistrate Court hearings to Pademba Road and other parts of the city.
“This ongoing decentralization process of the justice system has been seen by many to have brought sanity to the court system especially the main Law Courts Building on Siaka Steven Street in Freetown, which hosts the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Highest Court of the land the, Supreme Court,” he said.
He said the High Court in recent times have been adequately renovated after being abandoned for years, adding that some rooms have been transformed into court rooms and some used for other purposes.
He cited the electrification of each court room, painting and the installation of air conditioning as some of the physical developments taking place in the judiciary.
He said the long-abandoned entrance situated just opposite the cotton tree has been refurbished to serve as reception for the High Court and that it was fitted with intercom link to every court in the entire building.
Murray said a waiting room has been provided to serve all the court rooms and an information desk has been erected where inquiries are made and possible directions given to visitors.
He cited a newly rehabilitated air-conditioned waiting room which provides sitting accommodation for up to fifty people at a time and that the store just outside the main building has been renovated to house exhibits and other items.
“Not only has the current Chief Justice ensured the comfort of visitors, but judges too. The chambers of all judges at the main court building are being renovated and furnished with modern office chairs, tables and rugs,” he said
He further stated that the administrative office within the court precinct was also undergoing rehabilitation and that it has been appropriately labelled to ensure easy identification.
Murry said some of the major successes of the judiciary include the expansion of the High Court divisions to eight, with the addition of the Industrial & Social Security Division, the Anti-Corruption Division and the Sexual Offences Division
He said the judiciary has recruited and deployed judges in places where there were no sitting judges and has created the first virtual court in the history of the country.
He said the judiciary has a responsive website now more than ever before and that judgments are being uploaded on a daily basis on the website www.judiciary.gov.sl as well as cases assigned to judges for adjudication.
He further stated that with the establishment of the ACC court more cases were now being completed within the shortest possible time than before, thus noting that the establishment of the sexual offences court came amid the expression of outrage from members of the public against the rise in sexual offense in recent times.
He said there were calls on the judiciary to take drastic steps to speedily try all sexual offense cases and bring the culprits to justice.
He maintained that the objectives of the court were to provide effective victim witness support services that will reduce trauma, eliminate secondary victimization, increase victim’s cooperation and attendance at the trial and ensure the timely conclusion of matters.
He said before 2018 , apart from the Master and Registrar and his Deputy Master who were graduates, there was only one graduate in the entire administration.
He said the workload was concentrated in the hands of the Master & Registrar, who had some accounting deficiencies and lacked the capacity for a vault controller and had to combine court operations with judicial professional support.
He said the recruitment of graduate, coupled with the training of some staff has enhanced the functional effectiveness and efficiency of staff in the discharge of their duties.
The Judiciary of Sierra Leone now conducts training for both judges and magistrates and administrative staff.
He said before 2018 there was no registrar at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, and as well lacked an operations manager, human resource manager, procurement & logistics manager and chartered certified accountant, all of which made administering the judiciary very daunting.
He further stated that the Chief Justice has made his administration filled in all the administrative deficiencies with the creation of separate court operations, different from judicial professional support and he has appointed key officers, most of who not only have degrees, but also post graduate qualifications.
He said at the moment the judiciary can boast of 42 judges and over thirty magistrates all over the country and that Criminal Sessions were known held in all district head quarter towns across the country.
He added that the judiciary now have resident judges for the very first time in Moyamba, Port Loko, Kabala, Kailahun and the York Waterloo axis.
On his part,Augustine Sorie-Sengbe Marrah, a well-known lawyer and a good governance activist recalled that the Judiciary was cited as one of the reasons behind the eleven-year civil conflict in Sierra Leone, and that “we think that after the civil war there should have been a significant improvement in the way and manner in which we address and deal with issues bordering on justice.
He added that the New Direction campaign was very much vociferous on the need for the improvement of the Rule of Law and that some of them were very active for the simple fact that “we believe that the Judiciary is the Hub and if we have a breakdown of law and order, nobody is going to bring investment in the country.
He said four years of the New Direction regime “I should be honest with you that the Judiciary has not been transforming itself, it has not redeem its name and the image is still that the Judiciary is corrupt. And all, it is in the pocket of the politicians and it is not delivering on its mandate.
He further that the mandate of the judiciary is to ensure fair justice regardless of party affiliation, regardless of ethnicity, but what entails now is that the executive liver of government was basically cutting the short.
He cited the removal from parliament ten Members of Parliament of the main opposition All People’s Congress and that the Bar Association filed papers against the Commissions of Enquiry, but that up to this moment the judiciary has not assigned it to any judge.
“I happen to be one of the lawyers on that case in the Supreme Court, but it has not been assigned till this day. And I filed a case against the State of Emergency for Corona Virus in the Supreme Court in April 2020, two years has past, and it has not been assigned to any judge,” he lamented.
He noted that those were all significant constitutional matters that have not seen the light of day.
“So when we are talking about the Judiciary twenty years after the war the story remains the same with no change. I always tell people as a lawyer that, one of my key prayers in the morning is that, I will not end up in the Judiciary with any matter. The same story continues in 1991 when Foday Sankoh thought that there was no Justice, there was a state of sanity and he took up arms. This is the same story and the good news is that nobody is going down in the part of war, because people are disillusioned and disenchanted and they are not satisfied with the status quo,” he said
He said the reason why the APC government was voted out of power was premised on the promises that were made by the SLPP, that they were going to fix the economy, the rule of law, corruption etc.
He said the judiciary knows what is right or wrong and that the past government and the present government understand what was good for the Judiciary, but that they were getting it deliberately wrong.
“In the appointments of judges they know that some of the people they appoint are not qualified, because it’s there party people they want to keep them there to serve their agenda. They know that if you want to have a really functional rule of law, they know the lawyers to appoint, they know that once you appoint those lawyers they will never take others from you or anybody in this world, they will only appoint those lawyers that are sympathetic to their call,” he charged.
He said the judiciary is getting it wrong because they were doing it wrong, adding that not that they were not trying, but that the results were bad.
He said government was not interested in changing the Judiciary at all, but were only interested in keeping it the way it is.
He noted that the same thing that former Present Ernest Bai Koroma did with the judiciary were the same thing the Bio administration was doing, using the judiciary to launder their political actions.
He said the judiciary is still not able to cultivate and assemble the right set of people to change the story.
“I told some senior government persons that I can count the top ten lawyers if they can appoint them tomorrow, we will have the best Judiciary in Africa,” he said.
He made mention of the Judiciary in Kenya where the president was now afraid of the court which has become so powerful because it is allowed to be independent with competent lawyers.
“I always tell people that I am in full time practice, I have never run an NGO, I have never receive any money for whatever in my life, I have done activism for over twenty years, no one has funded me, I do it because I have a passion for it,” he said
In his opinion, however,he said the said the APC would have done worst had they won the 2018 elections.
“The APC removed the Vice President and set that constitutional decline motion, they would have done worst in my opinion. We were optimistic that the New Direction would have done things fundamentally different from the previous regime, alas the country has stock between the devil and the deep blue sea,” he said.
He concluded that the judiciary can’t give what they don’t have, and it can’t give out justice to the people of Sierra Leone.
He said to salvage the situation they should bring in new minds and energies and that the people of Sierra Leone can only pray to God for him to change them over night.
Joseph Knox Vandy, is a juryand a retired member of the Sierra Leone Police.
He told Concord Times that he has been working as a jury for over eleven years and that it was very challenging for him initially.
He said when Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards took over in 2018, things has been so encouraging to all the jurors and that over the years they have been crying for stipend from the judiciary, but their cries were not heard.
He said when Justice Edwards took over he listened to their cries by providing little transportation for all the jurors on a monthly basis.
He said over the years, matters were delayed because there were not enough jurors in court.
He said because of the stipend that the CJ has been giving to them every month matters were now going on well, and jurors were now coming to court every day.