By Edwin Mbulo and Masuzyo Chakwe
PRESIDENT Edgar Lungu says the people of Zambia need a vibrant judiciary that is equal to the task.
Opening the 2019 judicial conference under the theme ‘Enhancing capacities for improved access to justice’ at Avani Hotel in Livingstone yesterday, President Lungu said impartial and accountable judiciary creates public confidence.
He said Zambians were owed a justice system that was accessible and impartial to all litigants irrespective of their standing in society.
President Lungu said the criminal justice had to move towards restorative justice rather than retributive justice.
He said one challenge that the criminal justice system was plagued with was over-crowded correctional facilities.
President Lungu said such had terribly weakened the capacity of correctional facilities to adequately cater for the needs of the inmates in health care, food and accommodation and to provide rehabilitation, education, training as well as recreation programmes.
He said overcrowded facilities also hampered the capabilities of correctional authorities to effectively manage them to meet the reintegration needs of inmates, and to ensure that their human rights were upheld.
President Lungu said while the government was endeavouring to build more correctional facilities and to make use of the parole system to remedy the situation, the use of alternative sentences as opposed to custodial sentences, would go a long way in decongesting correctional facilities.
He implored the bench to wholly embrace alternative sanctions to incarceration such as community service, restitution and suspended sentences, in deserving cases.
“Such sanctions will not only reduce the numbers in the correctional facilities but will also spare government’s already over stretched resources,” he said.
President Lungu said the conference comes at a time when the demands for justice and speedy justice for that matter were on the increase while the institutional capabilities continue to be overstretched.
President Lungu said the government was committed to achieving the priorities set in the 7th National Development Plan among them improving the rule of law, human rights and constitutionalism.
He noted that the objective of SDG 16 was to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
President Lungu said the government was enhancing access to justice by focusing on strengthening capacities of institutions in the legal and justice sector.
He said the Constitutional Court had been able to adjudicate on a number of matters particularly in the political space at local government, parliamentary or even presidential levels.
President Lungu said the creation of specialised divisions within the High Court such as the Industrial Relations Division, Commercial Division, and the Family and Children’s Division would help enhance access to justice in those specialised areas of the law.
“In this regard, my government stands ready to work with the judiciary in creating a legal architecture and environment to enhance the judiciary’s capabilities,” he said.
President Lungu said it was apparent that certain negative trends in society have been gaining traction, negating efforts his government was making in other economic and social sectors.
He said notable among those vices were gender-based violence, child abuse and negligent substance abuse.
President Lungu said with respect to GBV, there had been an upward trend in the number of cases over the years as shown during the commemoration of the “16 days of activism against gender-based violence” which ended on December 10.
He said the governmement was committed to ensuring the full operationalisation of the anti-gender based violence Act.
“For us to curb these vices it is imperative that we continue to work together by ensuring that justice is dispensed timely and offenders are made to account for their misdeeds,” he said
President Lungu said the backlog of pending cases and judgments was a cause for concern and one that was haunting many judiciaries across the globe.
“However, it is a fundamental right that accused persons and litigants must have their day in court and know their fate or outcome of their cases,” he said.
President Lungu said it was imperative that cases were heard and determined within a reasonable time and matters are concluded with well-reasoned judgments.
“Due to this delay in justice, our people some of whom are erroneously behind bars, have continued to be denied justice. This is unacceptable, and a lasting solution to this problem must be sought,” he said. “…I am reliably informed that a taskforce on backlog has been put in place, and has so far, dismantled 3,619 civil cases out of 4,574 cases which were in backlog in the High Court at Lusaka, Kitwe, Ndola and Livingstone.”
President Lungu said he also was aware that six provinces did not have any High Court buildings and as a result, the High Court only sits as a circuit court, thus delaying justice.
He said to resolve those challenges, the government was prepared to work hard in ensuring that the judiciary was recognised in the decentralisation strategies by improving building conditions and facilities in every province.
He funds permitting, the government intends to establish high courts in the remaining six provinces of Zambia.
President Lungu implored the judiciary to have a long-range view of where the world was headed as this would inform the sort of anticipated matters.
He said the government would support the efforts by the judiciary in establishing a judicial college.
President Lungu said for the judiciary to effectively carry out its mandate, as a co-equal arm of government, there was need to uphold the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
He said Article 122 clause 1 of the Constitution clearly enjoins the courts to remain impartial and independent of all external pressure or improper influence.
President Lungu said this means that there was no authority or person who should influence the ladyships or lordships in the discharge of their judicial functions.
The President however said judicial independence should not be used to suppress judicial accountability.
He noted that the judicial authority of the Republic derives from the people of Zambia and shall be exercised in a just manner and such exercise shall promote accountability.
President Lungu said while independence entails free from external influence, decision making and accountability required that at least judgments must be delivered in a timely manner.
“For example, what would be the justification for not delivering judgment three years after the conclusion of trial? The people of Zambia need a vibrant judiciary that is equal to the task,” said President Lungu. “A nation’s confidence in its judiciary is an essential ingredient for realising the judicial function in providing access to justice. The courts under the banner of the judiciary have a unique position in our democratic and constitutional dispensation, as the bulwark of justice and democracy…As President of the Republican of Zambia and as a member of the legal profession, I am aware that access to justice does not exist in isolation. Therefore, access to justice must be discussed in a broader context which incorporates good governance, respect for the rule of law, democratic values and respect for human rights.”
And Chief Justice Irene Mambilima said the conference had attracted distinguished legal luminaries to expose Zambian judges and magistrates to international best practices in mediation.
Justice Mambilima said the conference was meant to make the judges and magistrates learn and re-learn the law in a practical way.
“It is a unique occasion for us to interact, refresh, sharpen and build our legal, intellectual and professional competences as well as to learn modern practices in the law. This comes out of a realisation that judicial education plays a very integral part in the development of our judicial system. Simply put, there can be no end to learning, even on the Bench,” she said.
Justice Mambilima said alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism had for the first time been extended to the Subordinate Court.
“This has been done through amendments to the Subordinate Court Rules of procedure promulgated under Statutory Instrument No. 72 of 2018. The amendments entail that matters shall be referred to mediation at first instance to enable parties to settle ex curia, leaving magistrates to deal only with deserving cases. Therefore, the purpose of the breakout sessions is to bring magistrates up to speed with mediation best practices,” said Justice Mambilima.