Faced with a huge backlog of cases and shortage of judges, Uganda’s Judiciary has set up special court sessions to expeditiously hear and dispose of cases related to sexual and gender-based violence.
The sessions kicked off concurrently in different parts of the country on November 12, and are expected to be concluded by December 15.
At least 1,000 out of an estimated 10,000 cases related to crimes on sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, defilement and domestic violence, are expected to be heard and cleared during this period.
More than 60 per cent of criminal cases are related to sexual and domestic violence.
According to figures published by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics this year, 30 per cent of 15- to 49-year-old girls and women experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner over the previous 12 months. Half of this age group will experience some sort of violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime.
In total, the courts will hold 13 special sessions.
Uganda’s judiciary says the special sessions are a pilot to understand how courts, if supported well, can be able to hear cases and make rulings in a shorter time. Currently, some cases can take between two to 10 years before they are concluded.
The special court sessions are being funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Judiciary spokesperson Solomon Muyita said with the special sessions, each assigned judge or magistrate is expected to handle more than one case per day.
“We hope with these special courts, we can advance justice to survivors of sexual and gender based violence, while at the same time improving their experiences in the justice system,” Mr Muyita told The East African.
Each judicial officer has been assigned between 50 and 100 cases.
“We expect them to clear at least 1,000 cases, taking into account the plea bargain procedure,” said Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine.
Alain Sibenaler, the UNFPA representative, said the special courts will help bring justice closer to the people, especially those in hard to reach areas.
“UNFPA will continue to work with the Justice Law and Order Sector and other stakeholders towards the strengthening of gender-based violence prevention and response, including ensuring access to justice,”Mr Sibenaler said.
According to Mr Muyita, a shortage of judges, slow investigations by the police and lack of witnesses have slowed trials in court, moreso those specifically related to sexual and gender-based violence.
Because many of these cases are often not a priority for judges and other judicial officers, they can drag on for several years without being heard, thereby denying justice to the victims and the accused.
By 2017, there were more than 155,000 cases in general that were pending at all levels of courts, according to findings by the Case Backlog Committee that was set up by the judiciary to understand the magnitude of the problem and possible ways of dealing with it.
Criminal cases constituted the biggest percentage of unresolved cases at 44 per cent, followed by civil cases at 33 per cent and land cases at 14 percent.
A large number of sexual and gender-based violence related cases were reported to police. In its 2017 annual crime report, police recorded at least 14,985 cases of defilement and 1,335 cases of rape.
In the same period, 361 cases of death through domestic violence and 4,473 cases of homicide were also reported.
Overall, the police report shows that by the end of 2017 a total of 66,626 cases were taken to court, out of which 18,961 cases secured convictions, 1,419 cases were acquitted, 9,613 cases dismissed and 36,633 cases were still pending trial.
The courts that are handling the special sessions on sexual violence cases include the High Court Criminal Division in Kampala, and the high court circuits of Moroto, Sororti, Masaka, Mukono, Gulu, Bushenyi and Mbale.
The Chief Magistrates courts of Nabweru, Iganga, Lira, Kapchorwa and Sironko will also be handling the cases.