Rwandan courts urged to set precedents

Tuesday December 13 2016

Rwanda's Chief Justice Sam Rugege. PHOTO | FILE

Rwanda's Chief Justice Sam Rugege. PHOTO | FILE 

By ROBERT MBARAGA

Rwanda's Judiciary has renewed calls for consistency and harmonisation of court decisions to help set precedents in the country’s legal system.

In a retreat of judges of the Supreme Court, the High Court and the Commercial High Court last week, Chief Justice Sam Rugege raised concerns over diverging decisions in the country’s courts.

“Sometimes judges reach different or conflicting decisions in cases involving similar facts,” said Justice Rugege.

Rwanda does not have any concrete mechanisms to have tribunals reach consistent decisions.

Unlike the common law system where judges rely on previous decisions to decide current cases, under the civil law system that Rwanda inherited from Belgium, judges are not bound by cases decided by their peers or by higher courts.

The main source for laws is statutes and judges interpret them independently and can only consider previous cases as secondary sources.

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Rwanda has for the past few years been encouraging legal practitioners to use precedents in line with its transition to a mixed justice system that combines civil and common law in a bid to have a more consistent and predictable justice system.

Advocates said judges sometimes refuse to consider precedents for similar cases.

Recently, the judiciary declared decisions by the supreme court binding on all lower courts and no judge can go against their decisions.

This has seen supreme court judges giving conflicting decisions on similar cases.

“This puts judges in lower courts in a dilemma, and so we must reach consensus on some of the contentious provisions followed by all courts,” said Justice Rugege.

The resolutions of the retreat have not been shared with the media, but according to official documents from the Supreme Court the discussions focused on tax law, land and property law, labour law and the banking law.

Some analysts have voiced concern that asking judges to subscribe to a common line of thinking raises fears of limiting their creativity and jeopardises their independence for any given case.

However, the judiciary guarantees that despite a judge consulting with fellow judges, they remain independent and their decisions impartial.

“This does not mean that tribunals are required to make exactly the same decisions to legal problems. Cases are distinguished based on facts,” said Justice Rugege.

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