Inmates, court officials say the system has transformed the administration of justice in Masaka and want it extended to other districts
“Previously, it was hard to believe that virtual court sessions are a reality, but after attending a virtual court session, I realized it is better than the physical ones….. The video conferencing facility is quicker and easier to use. I could hear what the judges were saying clearly, I could hear what the lawyers were saying clearly, and they also could hear me very well. I want to thank UNDP and the Judiciary of Uganda for setting up this facility. Now more than ever, I feel safer, health-wise due to the current COVID-19 and freer to express myself to the judges without any intimidations whatsoever,” an anonymous male prisoner at Masaka Main Prison said.
His story exemplifies the benefits of the video conferencing system in the Judiciary supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP.) The system was installed in Masaka High Court and Masaka Main Prison in early 2021 to address the challenge of case backlog in the Judiciary and enhance institutional transparency and access to justice. The facility is a key sustainable solution to case backlog and addressing high rates of pretrial detention.
In the second national lockdown instituted to suppress further transmission of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Uganda, case backlog remains a bottleneck to the right to a speedy trial, a key facet of the right to a fair hearing and is the principle upon which the saying “justice delayed is justice denied” was coined. In fact, the Uganda Code of Judicial Conduct principle 6.2 requires judicial officers to dispose of cases expeditiously and deliver judgment within 60 days. However, this is not always the case. In 2019, the Justice, Law and Order Sector reported that the case disposal rate in the justice sector was at 45% - meaning that many cases remain pending in the Judiciary over long periods of time.
Testimonies from court officials
The anonymous prisoner is not alone. Judicial officers also appreciate the contribution of the video conferencing facility to the administration of justice and want the system extended to other courts.
According to Hon. Lady Justice Katamba Victoria Nakintu Nkwanga, the Resident Judge, Masaka High Court, the system has improved security and made witnesses freer to give evidence.
“I am happy that there is security for both inmates and witnesses. Because of the facility, the court case witnesses are freer to give evidence especially children since they are separated in different places and locations. Previously, children would give their evidence in chambers, where there could be danger of feeling threatened while giving evidence especially with cases involving relatives since the chamber rooms are small,” Lady Justice Katamba Victoria Nakintu Nkwanga said.
Justice Nakintu also highlighted the need to extend the system to Kalangala Chief Magistrate’s Court whose location requires movement of inmates from the different islands to the court in Kalangala and back, which is very cost-ineffective and time-consuming.
Increased case hearings
Similarly, Hon. Justice Cheborion Barishaki, the head of the Court of Appeal session that was ongoing in Masaka court at the time of the inspection, said the system has increased the number of cases being heard.
“We are very grateful to UNDP for the video conferencing system - it has quickened our work. Previously, two or three cases were heard in a day; now six or seven cases can be heard. We are looking at further cooperation moving forward to improve access to justice in this country,” Hon. Justice Barishaki said.
In light of the restrictions on movement and the stay-at-home directives instituted to curtail further transmission of COVID-19, H.W Charles Yeteise, Chief Magistrate, Masaka, said the system has eased interaction between prisoners and court officials.
“This was timely, given the current lockdown; it has assisted us in talking to prisoners... We held a court of appeal and because of this facility, it went on very successfully, thanks to UNDP for the partnership and for making administration of justice easier.”
Case backlog has undermined the reputation of the Judiciary, with the public becoming, skeptical about the ability of the Judiciary to serve it. The delays in clearing cases and dispensing justice promptly have led to a rise in mob justice, substantial overcrowding of prisons and inordinate periods of pretrial detention.
At the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a clear understanding that human rights, peace, security, and development are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. Through its entirety, the importance of enhancing access to justice, ensuring safety and security, and promoting human rights for sustainable development are reflected. The support toward the video conferencing system fills a gap by fostering timely case hearings and thereby accountability, which is in line with the sixteenth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 16) under the 2030 Agenda.
How the video conferencing system works
The system allows for witness testimony and hearings to be carried out at a distance, without having to transfer detainees physically to the courtroom. It also enables any person who has an interest in court proceedings to be involved in a hearing from a remote location. In its simplest form, a witness at a remote location may give his/her evidence via a video link to the court with audio-visual aides in the courtroom and in the remote location.
About the visit to Masaka High Court and Masaka Main Prison
The UNDP team led by Annet Mpabulungi Wakabi, Team leader, Rule of Law and Constitutional Democracy, and the Justice, Law and Order Secretariat led by Ms. Lucy Ladira, Advisor, Criminal Justice, visited Masaka High Court and Masaka Main Prison to obtain firsthand information on how the video conferencing facility was working in terms of delivering technical, functional, and efficient justice services; create room for interaction among the Judiciary of Uganda who organized the visit, UNDP and the service users including the judges, the inmates and the technical teams across the board. The visit also sought to obtain any immediate successes, challenges, lessons and recommendation and thereby inform e-justice programming, advocacy points for acceleration of e-justice and strategies for addressing any challenges and to gauge the state of preparedness on ground ahead of the scheduled official launch event of the video conferencing facility for the Masaka High Court and Masaka Main Prison.
During the visit, the team was taken through how the installed video conferencing equipment works and observed good uptake of the video conferencing services. The Masaka Main Prison, however, requires more support to facilitate the uptake of the technology by putting in place reliable internet connectivity and training on how the system works.
“This visit has been helpful; it has enriched how we are going to position this support going forward. We are having a digitalization program in the forthcoming UNDP Country Programme 2021-2025; the experiences from Masaka offer critical lessons,” – Annet Mpabulungi, Team leader Rule of Law and Constitutional Democracy, UNDP, said.