Excellency the President, Mr. Adama Barrow
Your Excellency the Vice President,
Hon. Speaker of the National Assembly
Hon. Judges of the Superior Courts of the Gambia
Hon. Attorney General and Minister of Justice
Your Worships Magistrates and Cadis
Secretary General Head of the Civil Service
Your Excellencies Members of the Diplomatic Corps
President and Members of the Bar
Director General, Gambia Law School
Hon. Secretary General, Commonwealth Magistrates and
Venerable Religious Leaders
Members of Staff of the Judiciary and of the Attorney General’s Chambers
I am indeed very pleased, on behalf of the Judiciary and the rest of the legal fraternity to welcome you all here today to this ceremony marking the formal opening of the 2019 Legal Year. We are indeed greatly honoured by the presence of Your Excellency the President of the Republic as the Head of the Executive at this auspicious occasion on the premises of the judicature which is the third arm of the State.
First celebrated on 21st November 1982 at the Maccarthy Square in the presence of His Excellency the then President of the Republic Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, the occasion has been consistently marked annually only from then on up to 1994; since then it has been intermittently recognized until today. We fervently hope that Your Excellency’s presence here today will mark the end of that era of indifference to a great occasion and institution and the beginning of a new era in which as required by Section 120 of the Constitution.-
“The government and all departments and agencies of the government shall accord such assistance
to the courts as the courts may reasonably require to protect their independence, dignity and effectiveness.”
The Legal Year celebration is not only a matter of pomp and ceremony; it is an occasion for stocktaking and for reflection on the achievements of and challenges facing the judicature and the machinery of justice to enable us identify appropriate strategies to meet those challenges. Hence in addition to today’s ceremony this year’s programme will feature the Call to the Gambian Bar tomorrow the 4th of February of some 58 students of the Gambia Law school both Gambian and foreign nationals who have successfully completed the vocational stage of their studies; a training programme on Tuesday the 5th for the Justices of the Peace and Commissioners of Oaths; a judicial retreat to formulate the new Five Year Strategic Plan for the judiciary, on Wednesday the 6th as well as some other activities organized by the members of the Bar including assistance to members of the public requiring legal services. There will also be a joint Bench – Bar meeting on Thursday the 7th of February. Permit me at the outset to record our appreciation to the Legal Year Organizing Committee under the Leadership of the Hon. Justice Salla Wadda and including other staff of the judiciary, the Law officers and members of the Bar for putting together an excellent programme and for the equally excellent arrangement for this year’s occasion.
As we take stock of the past two years – beginning January 2017 with the change in administration in the organs of State - we wish to emphasise that efforts at reconstruction of the judiciary have been guided by the three key aspects of the institution’s mission: Judicial Independence, Judicial Impartiality and Judicial efficiency. There has to this end been some significant progress in strengthening the capacity of the judiciary – in terms of human resources, infrastructure, equipment and training to more effectively discharge its core mandate of adjudication. It will be recalled that 2017 started off without a Supreme Court for the Gambia; for two years prior to that the court had not sat. At the best of times prior to that it held two sessions of two weeks each per annum. Since then the Supreme Court has been fully reconstituted with four Gambian Justices in the persons of Justice Semega Janneh, Justice Sock, Justice Sulayman Jallow and Justice Mamyassin Sey joining me for the first time constitute a full Gambian Bench of the court. Our brothers Justices Yahaya of Nigeria and Brown-Marke of Sierra Leone continue to join us for some of our sessions. The situation is that the court is now able to sit with a full complement of local judges, and to sit more frequently. Indeed from this year the court plans to hold a session every third month of the year.The Gambia Court of Appeal too has seen a full Gambianisation of its complement of seven judges with the Hon. Justice M’bai, Justice Njie. Justice Salla-Wadda, Justice Roche, Justice Mahoney and Justice Sillah-Camara under the Presidency of the Hon. Justice Awa Bah. Whilst the Subordinate courts – i.e. the Magistrates’ courts and the Cadis courts – enjoy a full complement of judicial officers, we continue to face serious challenges with filling the vacancies for judges in the High Court. This court it may be recalled has both an original and an appellate jurisdiction. The High Court 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. The High Court has exclusive original jurisdiction in the very important and critical area of enforcement of the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution; the High Court hears all appeals from the subordinate magistrates’ court and district tribunals. The High Court is thus a very important bridge between the subordinate courts and the other superior courts such as the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Its efficient functioning is thus crucial for the proper administration of justice. Despite advances made since 2017 to encourage Gambians to the High Court Bench with the appointment of Justice Zainab Jawara Alami, Justice Sainabou Wadda Cisse, Justice Ebrima Jaiteh and the late Justice Buba Jawo of blessed memory joining the Hon. Justice Amina Saho-Ceesay as well as the generous secondment by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 2018 of Justice P.O. Kuejubola, Justice B.A. Bakre and Justice U. Musale on technical assistance, the High Court Bench remains seriously understaffed and the Judges seriously overloaded with each of them 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. This 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 the hearing and determination of cases. Gambians must themselves take responsibility for providing justice to their compatriots. Whilst we are indeed very grateful to the Federal Republic of Nigeria for providing judges on technical assistance to The Gambia for several decades and whilst we appreciate the valuable service rendered by such judicial officers and will continue to welcome them, it is time for those members of the Bar who are in all respects suitable for such appointment to make their services available for the common good of the nation. In order to further facilitate dealing with the vacancies the judiciary will also be submitting proposals to the 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. We look forward to a favorable consideration and urgent action on the proposal.
The Judiciary has also 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.
Your Excellency Mr. President and distinguished guests the continuous training of the staff is an important component of the programme for the development of the human resources capacity of the judiciary. The Training Unit of the Judiciary, under the leadership of the Hon. Justice Awa Bah, has been very active during the period under review in designing and delivering various training sessions for staff across the board. Thus in 2017 and 2018 the Unit delivered respectively 12 and 10 training sessions to various categories of staff including judges, magistrates’, cadis, registrars and other staff on diverse subjects including substantive areas of the law, case management, human rights, records management, judicial ethics, leadership and management skills, judicial administration, enhancing secretarial skills etc.
The programme for 2019 has already been kick started in January 2019 with training in case management, judgment writing, coroner’s training program for all magistrates’, the training of trainers and a workshop on sentencing guidelines facilitated jointly by the Judicial College of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges Association (CMJA). We expect that such training will be reflected in better staff performance and the improved efficiency of the judiciary. I wish to record our appreciation to the European Union, the Judicial College of the United Kingdom, the CMJA, the National Judicial College of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Qabas Charity Foundation, the Institute for Human Rights and Development, National Environmental Agency and the UNDP for their assistance in the delivery of various components of the training programme in the past two years.
In order to enhance staff conduct and performance I have recently revived and reconstituted the Judiciary Ethics Committee comprising Hon. Justice Raymond Sock as Chairman assisted by Hon. Justice Sallah Wadda and Hon. Justice Haddy Roche. 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. Provision in the 2019 budget of the judiciary for the establishment of a Human Resource and Monitoring Unit is designed to improve staff management and performance.
During the period under review we unfortunately lost our valuable staff who recently passed away namely: Hon. Justice Buba Jawo, Cadi Ebrima Jammeh, Assistant Registrar, Modou Jarju, Interpreter, Isatou Jamanka Ndow, District Tribunal Scribe, Sheikh Hydara and our Cleaners Essa Ceesay, Rohey Sanyang and Amie Sanyang. We extend our condolences to the bereaved families and pray for the Almighty to grant eternal peace to the departed and guidance and protection to the families and friends they have left behind.
Your Excellency Mr. President and distinguished guests, one of the great challenges facing the judiciary currently is the acute shortage of appropriate court room and office space. Space requirements have not kept up with the workload and with the expansion of the judiciary through the creation of new and specialized courts and the recruitment of judges, magistrates’ and other staff. The situation in the provinces, following rehabilitation in the past year of the Soma Cadis court and of our facilities in Mansakonko and Basse has improved to the point where, with the recruitment of new judges, the High Courts in Mansakonko and Basse can be fully operational. The greater Banjul area however, suffers from acute shortage of court rooms and office space with several magistrates sharing the same, queuing for court rooms and thus unable to operate optimally. The Court of Appeal which sits daily has no court room of its own but shares with the Supreme Court the totally unsuitable facilities of the latter. We are pleased that the government has in the 2019 budget provided the sum of D25 million dalasi for the construction of a new court complex in the Kombos to cater for additional space for the High Court, the magistrates and cadis. The design of this complex has already been concluded and we expect construction to commence in the course of the current legal year. The sum of D1,000,000 has also been budgeted for preliminary work on the establishment in the kombos of a complex for a new specialized commercial and land disputes court in order to expedite adjudication in these very critical areas. 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. We expect delivery shortly of two generators to be installed at the Law Courts complex in Banjul and at Kanifing from resources provided under the 2018 budget. A further allocation has been provided in the current 2019 budget for installation of additional generators for the other courts in the Kombos. We are indeed thankful to Your Excellency’s government for these important allocations and for the measures being taken since last year to alleviate the transport challenges facing judicial officers.
Your Excellency Mr. President and distinguished guests turning now to the core adjudicatory function of the judiciary I am pleased to report some progress in performance, despite the numerous challenges over the two year period of 2017 and 2018. Out of the 4.458 cases before the Magistrate’s Courts country wide during that period, the magistrates heard and determined 3,196 of the cases; of the 1,719 cases before the High Court, during the same period the judges heard and determined 883 of them leaving a balance of 836 cases carried forward into 2019. Out of the 58 appeals filed before the Cadi Appeals Panel in 2017, 53 were concluded with only 5 pending determination. In 2018, 51 appeals were filed in the Cadi Appeal Panel of which 30 were concluded and the remaining 21 carried over to 2019. The subordinate Cadis Courts country wide in 2017 had a total docket of 1141 cases of which 613 were disposed of carrying forward 528 cases into 2018. That year 2018 the case load of the first instance cadis courts amounted to 1304 cases of which 678 had been heard and determined by the end of 2018. The entire cadi court system in 2017 and 2018 had a total case load of 2554 cases, of which 1287 had been concluded by end of 2018. As of end of January 2019 the Gambia Court of Appeal, following delivery of 29 rulings and 36 judgments by the end of 2018 had only 67 cases pending before it. With the increases in the number of Court of Appeal Judges the court is now able to operate in several panels simultaneously thereby expediting the disposal of its cases.
As of now the Supreme Court the Apex court of The Gambia has a docket of only 33 pending cases, having heard and delivered judgment in 50 of the 83 cases filed before it since 2017. Altogether an astoundingly heavy total national case load of 7,613 cases in all the courts for 2017 and 2018. Excluding the cases in the 47 District Tribunal and countrywide. And if I may add an equally commendable achievement by the courts in hearing and concluding 5538 of the cases. I would like to particularly commend the Cadis, the Magistrates’, and the High Court Judges, the latter despite operating at well below capacity. As well as the members of the Bar, the Law officers and the support staff of the judiciary who all contributed to these achievements.
Your Excellency Mr. President, distinguished guests the case statistics nonetheless also disclose a disturbing trend. We are becoming an extremely litigious society. There are too many cases in the courts. The current case load of the courts is too heavy for the system. Resort to the courts is undoubtedly a mark of confidence in the machinery of justice, and of the faith of the population that the courts will do impartial justice. Litigation should however be a last resort, when out of court settlement has been explored and exhausted. Litigation should not be a first resort to the courts. An overburdened judicial system will only lead to further delays in the disposal of cases and sometimes to poor management of cases. All parties to a dispute as well as their counsel must deploy all efforts at out of court settlement before instituting legal proceedings. I also call on all community leaders as well to promote and encourage the settlement of civil disputes out of court. The judiciary will itself play its part in this respect with a review and strengthening of the court annexed alternative disputes resolution mechanism to ensure that serious efforts are made by the parties for resolution before a civil dispute is litigated in court.
Your Excellency Mr. President, distinguished guests the primary challenge for any judicial system lies in its independence and impartiality. You have Mr. President, lived up to both your public and private assurances of non- interference in the judiciary and respecting its independence. Those assurances are encouraging to judicial officers at all levels to continue to live up to their oaths to dispense justice fairly and impartially and without fear or favour.
I am pleased also to report that there has been some progress towards the administrative and financial autonomy of the judiciary as envisaged by the Constitution. For the first time the annual estimates of expenditure for the judiciary were as required by Section 144 of the Constitution submitted by the Chief Justice, in respect of 2019, to His Excellency the President of the Republic who pursuant to that provision, directed the Minister of Finance to lay the same before the National Assembly without any alteration. Furthermore as from January 2019 the judiciary will become fully autonomous with regard to the appointment of its staff. It will be recalled that the Judicial Service Commission pursuant to Section 138 of the Constitution is mandated to recommend to the President the appointment of Judges and pursuant to Section 146 of the Constitution to appoint Magistrates’ and other specified officers of the courts. Other staff not falling within these two categories will now be appointed in accordance with a mechanism I have established in accordance with Section 146 (3) of the Constitution. These two measures I believe will assist the judiciary in the better management of its financial and human resources.
But challenges do nonetheless remain which need to be addressed to complement the commitment, dedication and hard work of the judicial officers in order to improve the efficiency of the judiciary in its core and other functions.
The challenges faced by the judiciary ultimately impact on the speed and efficacy with which its core function of hearing and determining cases is discharged. We remain firmly committed to the avoidance of unnecessary delays and to expediting the determination of cases, particularly the criminal cases where very often the accused persons are in custody. This however requires the collaboration of several actors for instance in the case of the criminal jurisdiction that of the Police, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the defence, the accused persons and of course the witnesses. I have directed all the courts to give priority to the hearing and disposal of criminal cases and I accordingly renew my call to all the actors in the criminal justice process to deploy all efforts for speedy disposal of these cases.
Your Excellency Mr. President the Judiciary requires more court rooms 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 court rooms countrywide, a new court complex for the commercial and land disputes court; 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 working methods and systems in the judiciary moving away from the slow, inefficient manual systems to harnessing 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 - in a small jurisdiction such as ours private transport for judicial officers is not a luxury – it 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 hinder 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 that the judgments of the Superior Courts in a common law jurisdiction such as ours in which the principle of stare decisis applies are edited and published.
All these – and perhaps more – need to be undertaken and accomplished in order to secure the strongest foundations for the rule of law in The Gambia. Attaining all of them may take some time; it will require considerable public investment in the judiciary; it will require the active involvement of the Bench and the Bar – the entire legal profession shouldering and discharging their respective responsibilities. Three days hence the judiciary will be convening to deliberate on the Judiciary Five Year Strategic Plan and we expect that from the retreat will emanate a roadmap to guide the state and all relevant stakeholders on the way forward in improving the machinery of justice in the Gambia.
Your Excellency Mr. President much public investment has been made by your government in the judiciary; much more is required in the judiciary than in the past in consonance with the topmost priority given to good governance in the National Development Plan. There can be no good governance without the rule of la w; and there can be no rule of law without an independent, impartial and efficient judiciary able to administer and deliver justice fairly and reasonably speedily. Effective justice is the cornerstone of the rule of law; the rule of law is the foundation for peace and progress. The rule of law is however not readily made; it has to be created, with significant public investment and with the support of other stakeholders, the Bench, the Bar and the general public. We pray that due cognisance will continue be taken of these considerations in the execution of the National Development Plan.
It is now my great honour and pleasure to invite Your Excellency Mr. President to address the gathering and to declare open the 2019 Legal Year.
I thank you for your attention.