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Statement Delivered By His Lordship, the Chief Justice of the Gambia, Hon Mr. Abdou Kareem Savage at the International Judicial Colloquium on the Promotion of Gender Justice in Africa held in Accra, Ghana from 19th to 21st November 2008

Dec 1, 2008, 6:39 AM

All Protocols Duly Observed

It is indeed a great honour for me to be invited by Her Ladyship the Hon Chief Justice of Ghana to attend this momentous occasion. I am very privileged too to address this august gathering. It is also my great pleasure to visit this great country and have this rare opportunity to interact with colleagues from different parts of the globe.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

The Government of the Gambia is fully committed and has been working tirelessly to meet the targets set by the United Nations for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that is, halving poverty by the year 2015. The Government has designed and adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP II) as the vehicle to achieve the said MDGs in the Gambia. Two of the PRSP II policy objectives are (1) to enhance access to, and the performance of, the Judiciary and (2) to mainstream gender issues in the national effort. These objectives have become critical factors in the Gambia's strategic development process.

On the issue of mainstreaming gender, the Gambia has taken several positive, practical steps to establish an appropriate platform for the promotion of gender. The appointment of Gambian women to key posts in Government, at the Judiciary and the National Assembly are clear pointers. Her Excellency the Vice-President, the Hon Speaker of National Assembly, the Hon Attorney General, the Secretary General and Head of Public Service, seven of the eleven Hon Judges of the Superior Courts, the President of Gambia Bar Association, five Hon Secretaries of State (Ministers) and several Permanent Secretaries (Heads of Ministries) are all women. In the private sector, Gambian women have been rising steadily. So have they been in the informal sector as well.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

In political, socio-economic and professional circles, the Gambian women have continued to champion gender causes and have recorded considerable successes and achievements. There are a range of PRSP strategies, activities in health, education and agriculture that aim at enhancing access to (I) quality girls' education, (2) appropriate health services for women and (2) adequate agricultural inputs, including access to land, and (4) marketing options for the rural womenfolk. In fisheries and other informal sectors, Government has plans and programmes that are intended to empower the womenfolk. At the intellectual and governance levels, advocacy groups and Non-Governmental Organizations have abounded and are supporting gender promotion.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

One such advocacy group is the Female Lawyers Association of the Gambia (FLAG). Women form the majority of the legal practitioners in the country. FLAG therefore comprises over seventy per cent of the lawyers. In the Gambia, a great opportunity and platform have been created in the Gambia for the promotion of gender and to achieve the desired developmental goals. One very good example is The Women's Bill. It has been the outcome of combined efforts of women stakeholder groups in the country. When this Bill becomes law, gender promotion and women issues would place at the center of all national development initiatives. The attempt by the womenfolk has been quite bold yet necessary. It must be emphasized Gender parity would never be fully realized if the women are not, as a matter of law, empowered. Women empowerment has become the cornerstone of gender promotion.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

Gender Justice Promotion in Africa as it relates to the Judiciary must be seen from within the same policy context. The Judiciary has a social duty. It is a key, strategic governance institution. It has a duty to respond adequately to the needs of the country and to complement the development efforts of other institutions within Government and the country at large. The policy goals and objectives of Judiciary, which are in tandem with poverty programmes of Government, are to enhance access to justice to the poor and the underprivileged. This includes the women and children of the country. In line with this policy, new structures have been put in place in the Judiciary to decentralize judicial services and focus the administration of justice on thematic areas such as women and children.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

In this regard, we have a Division in the High Court devoted to Family Matters. There is also a Children's Court established in 2005 to deal specifically with matters relating to and affecting children and young persons. These courts handle substantial issues pertaining to and affecting the womenfolk. The country, with a population of over 80 per cent Muslims, has three Muslim Courts dealing with: Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance of Muslims. The bulk of these court users are the urban women. The rural women appear before the District Tribunal, the lowest court within the judicial structure. It is presided over by a District Chief who is assisted by four to five village or community heads. In the Cadi Courts and to a large extent the District Tribunal, women form the majority of litigants. In these courts, however, there are always first attempts at amicably settling disputes. We do have formal review and appeal processes in place that serve as the checks and balances.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

Notwithstanding, problems do remain and exist. As the Chief Justice, I have been regularly receiving a barrage of complaints from un represented women about how their cases are treated in these courts (Cadi Courts and sometimes District Tribunals). After a thorough examination of the problems posed in these complaints, the challenges to the women have been cultural than rlegal or judicial. It is my view that the issue of rights of women in Africa, sometimes, bothers on perception. Therefore the battle in promoting Gender Justice in Africa must commence with perceptions. There is a serious need for cultural changes to take place and this change must engulf the whole fabric of society starting from the bottom. Indeed, we policy makers and the professionals assisting us are quite au fait with the need to change. Can we say the same for the main beneficiaries - the women? It is my strong view that the womenfolk must change perception. There is need to educate and orientate them. I am however very happy to state that in the Gambia, the policy in place is very close to compulsory education for girls. This means that the war has been taken to the primary schools. We look forward to a sustainable, long term solution.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

I now turn to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). The backlog of court cases, caused by in ordinate delays in processes and proceedings, has compelled the Gambia to embrace the formal ADR system. Over the past five years, the World Bank had raised serious concerns about delays in our courts. These were affec ting the economy and investment opportunities. After consultations with stakeholders, the Bank, under the CapacityBuilding for Economic Management Project (CBEMP), evolved the strategy to establish ADR in the Gambia. Mr. Justice Stephen Alan Brobbey of Ghana was Chief Justice at the time. As a complement to CBEMP initiative, the Department for International Development (DflD) assisted the Judiciary to organize a series of sensitization seminars for Judges, Magistrates and Senior Court officials on ADR. DflD later funded a group of top judicial administrators, registrars and a public lawyer led by former Chief Justice Brobbey to understudy ADR in Ghana. Much later, CBEMP funded the former Chief Justice and a group of seventeen legal sector officials (judges, magistrates, private and public legal officials and others) from the Gambia (which included me) to undergo an intensive training of trainers' course on ADR in the United States of America. This was followed, at CBEMP's expense, by the training of over a hundred prospective ADR mediators, which was undertaken by former Chief Justice Brobbey and Hon Mrs Justice Georgina T Wood (current Chief Justice of Ghana). Further funded by CBEMP, Ghanaian Chief Justice Wood and former Chief Justice Brobbey, together with international resource persons, drew up ADR procedural guidelines for the Gambia.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

Whilst the Judiciary was implementing these ADR capacity building activities, the Department of State for Justice and the Attorney General's Chambers, supported by CBEMP, were also vigorously pushing the ADR Bill which later became law - the ADR Act.

The current administration, under our stewardship, has been pursuing ADR in line with the policy goals. We have established a Court annexed ADR system:

An ADR administrative structure was put in place in the High Court

A registry, with staff approved by the National Assembly plus equipment, furniture and staff training was put in place with the assistance of CBEMP.

ADR Registry has been covering the High Court and Kanifing Magistrate Court for the time being.

Funding was obtained from the National Assembly for ADR management costs and fees for mediators.

As a result, we have been able to facilitate the successful mediation of few cases under the court annexed ADR system.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

The ADR system indeed has strengths (staffing, funding, among others). However, it does also have weaknesses and serious challenges. These includes

1. The legal challenge: Opting for ADR under the law is optional. Practitioners un-keen about ADR may not encourage clients to use the system. Therefore for ADR to be effective, its use - specific types of cases - must be as a matter of law be mandatory;

2. Management: planning, coordinating and managing ADR in the courts demand greater attention and focus. Due to human capacity constraints and other compelling factors, ADR co-ordination could not receive a high priority over the past twelve months. Renewed efforts between the Judiciary and CBEMP are now geared towards strengthening an efficient ADR function. The efforts includeintroducing change management in the Judiciary;

3. Mediators: The Court Annexed mediators are 99% lawyers. They are few very busy with their own cases and in their professions. The numbers are inadequate;

4. Policy issues: Issues relating to the fees of Mediators, processes of the court annexed system, training of more mediators and staff are not matter of the administration of the Judiciary alone

However, the good news has been the recent establishment of the National ADR Secretariat and the appointment of a Chief Executive. The Secretariat body has been mandated by the law to assume policy and management responsibility for ADR in the country. The Judiciary and the Secretariat are collaborating in conjunction with the Department of State for Justice to address some of the challenges.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

The practice of ADR has been prevalent in homes, communities and villages in the Gambia. Now it has its firm roots in the law. ADR would be easily integrated in the court system. It would certainly decongest the courts and amicably settle the non-contentious cases. At a wider level, ADR has the potential to ensure cohesion, peace and tranquility in our society since no rancor or disharmony would follow the ADR proceedings as opposed to decisions of the conventional court.

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished participants

It is in this spirit that the Gambia has embraced ADR. Our current strategy is therefore focused on sensitization, which targets litigants, mainly business.

I cannot conclude this statement without expressing my gratitude to the World Bank, through its CBEMP for funding various AOR activities and OFIO for the funding the various aspect of and that of the entire judiciary and people of the Gambia to the Chief Justice of Ghana and Justice Brobbey for the brilliant efforts in seeing ADR thorough in the Gambia and generally for assisting the Judiciary of the Gambia at one point of its development. This is what Africans should be doing: advanced jurisdictions must assist those behind.

On that note, I thank you all for your kind attention.