Faculty Scholarship

A Day at the High Court of Uganda

For most of this program, I am the sole lecturer, and our days are taken up with typical Trial Advocacy coursework – directs and crosses; openings and closings; basic trial skills; depositions and mediation.  This past Thursday morning, however, the program brought in a guest speaker to speak about technological developments related to African courts.  While I’m sure I could have learned a great deal from the speaker, I used this as an opportunity to sneak off to the Ugandan High Court.

The High Court building is surrounded by a high, guarded gate and barbed wire, but is open to the public nonetheless.  The High Court serves as the trial court level for significant criminal cases in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.  Lesser criminal offences start off in magistrate courts elsewhere.  I am told the High Court hears appeals as well. Still, given that the population of Kampala is a little larger than Philadelphia, the building struck me as small.  As near as I could find, there were only 6 courtrooms, and only one of them was in session the Thursday morning I visited.  Court began at 11:30, and its docket appeared to contain less than 15 cases.

By 11:00, the participants were in place.  Eleven male defendants sat in the second row of the gallery, brought in handcuffed to one another.  In front of them were two female defendants, one carrying a baby.  All were in street clothes and surrounded by 10 prison guards, dressed in mud-colored uniforms.  This courtroom was far quieter than the typical din of Philadelphia courts.  The family members in the gallery, the defendants, and the court staff were all silent as they waited for the judge to take the bench.  The courtroom was all dark wood, with the crest of Uganda situated above the raised platform for the judge in the front of the room.  The room had no air-conditioning, despite the warm climate, just open doors and windows, and one lowly ceiling fan laboring alongside the sole fluorescent light.

Toward the front, facing the judge sat three attorneys – a man and a woman at one table and another man at the other.  All wore black robes, akin to the types of robes judges wear in the United States, and each had some sort of ornate collar peeking out at the neck of their robe.  In front of them, raised to the level of the judge, sat a member of the court staff on one side, and two “assessors” on the other, all in street clothes, each facing perpendicular to the judge.  When the judge took the bench, he wore a red robe, adorned with the Ugandan crest on his lapels, and he wore a whitish wig, reminiscent of British courts of yesteryear.

The assessors function a bit like an advisory jury, providing an opinion to the High Court judge about their view of the evidence.  Assessors are legally mandated in serious cases.  When the first case was called, eight male defendants shuffled over to the defendant’s box, where they stood throughout the proceeding.  The judge noted that their case had finished the day before but was held in abeyance to give the assessors time to get their opinions together.  It was odd that the Judge claimed that court opened that day at 9:30, when it clearly began two hours later (and was being recorded, such that the time and the misrepresentation would be apparent even to anyone not present).  The assessors said their opinion was unanimous and that it was a joint opinion for all eight defendants, although the judge made clear that they had the prerogative to give individual opinions for each defendant.   One of the assessors read the opinion aloud, going through the law and the facts in detail, witness by witness.  According to the assessors, all eight defendants should be found guilty of the 2015 crimes charged- murder, robbery, and conspiracy.  For the assessors, the alibi “fell short of the truth.”

The lack of emotion in any response was surprising.  One man in the gallery cried silent tears, but the others there were silent.  There was no demonstration of emotion or understanding, resignation or outrage, from the defendants.  I do not know whether any of the victim’s family or police on the case were present.  The lawyers said nothing.

The judge continued the cases for a week to return to render his judgement, and presumably, for sentencing.  While a judge’s decision may be informed by the opinion of the assessors, their submission is not binding.  While there is no mandatory death penalty in Uganda, and none of Uganda’s 133 Death Row inmates been executed in the last 20 years,[1] these eight defendants could potentially be sentenced to death or to life in prison.  As the court officer began to translate what the assessor had read from English to one of Uganda’s local tribal languages, the judge urged haste, telling him to just “give them the gist” of what the assessor said.  The judge then thanked the assessors for their time, and it was on to the next matter.

Sadly, I could only stay for a bit of the next case before heading back to the afternoon session of our program.  A single defendant was moved to stand in the defendant’s box, as the original eight were led out.  The judge asked the lawyers for their summation, and one rose to speak.  This, too, was a murder case, and like the assessor gave, this too, was a dry recitation of evidence, organized witness by witness.  Because the speech was organized that way, and because it was a little hard to hear, it was tough to pick out much of the storyline of the matter.  Sadly, I couldn’t tell whether the lawyer was arguing on behalf of the prosecution or the defense before I had to go, but then again, I wasn’t the audience they needed to persuade.

Two hours of waiting and one hour of court-watching only gave me a glimpse of what criminal courts in Uganda are like.  I saw enough to notice the differences, but not enough to know whether the courts are fair.  With any luck, I’ll get the chance to return one day, to get to know the people of Uganda, and their courts, better.

[1] BBC News, “Uganda Abolishes Mandatory Death Penalty” The East African, August 21, 2019, last accessed 11/21/19 at:  https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/ea/Uganda-abolishes-mandatory-death-penalty/4552908-5243370-rfierez/index.html

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