Rwanda is overhauling its judicial system with reforms that if approved will see the introduction of new courts and specialised chambers and a reduction in the number of lower courts.
The three Bills that among others establish the Court of Appeal, determine the organisation and functioning of the Judiciary, and jurisdiction of courts have already been endorsed by Cabinet and are soon to be tabled in Parliament.
“The draft laws have so far been submitted to Parliament and we are waiting for the House to set a date for their presentation,” said Evode Uwizeyimana, the newly appointed state minister for Constitution and Legal Affairs.
The Court of Appeal will be positioned between the High Court and the Supreme Court. This court will assume many of the current Supreme Court’s functions leaving the latter to deal only with constitutional cases and other cases that require legal interpretation.
Another important proposal is the introduction of a special chamber in intermediate courts to hear cases of corruption and embezzlement of public funds.
According to analysts, this falls within the government’s push to deter economic crimes.
Ongoing talks to amend the penal code also suggested harsh sentences for these offences following the Auditor-General’s report that signalled an increase in mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds among other infractions.
The proposed Court of Appeal has been hailed by the legal fraternity and stakeholders as an important step towards easing the administration of justice.
“This court is timely and we anticipate that it will reduce the time it takes for the Supreme Court to deliver its judgment,” said Pie Habimana, an advocate and a law lecturer at the University of Rwanda.
Backlog of cases
During the opening of the judicial year in October, Chief Justice Sam Rugege said because of a huge backlog, it currently takes 20 months (a year and a half) for the Supreme Court to start hearing a new case, itself a reduction from the 66 months it took in 2012.
Lawyers have however expressed concern over other reforms proposed in the pending Bills. For instance the draft law determining jurisdiction of courts suggests cutting the number of primary courts from the current 60 to 41 and to scrap two detached chambers of the commercial court leaving only one based in the capital Kigali.
According to Frank Mugisha, a lawyer, these reforms risk thwarting further access to justice for the poor.
“Even with the current 60 primary courts, those seeking service have to travel a long distance to get to a court, and I think reducing the number will definitely make the situation worse,” Mr Mugisha warned.
According to him, the reforms proponents should keep in mind that primary courts are currently receiving many cases due to changes in the jurisdiction of mediation committees (Abunzi), and that the proposed reforms would leave many people with no alternative.
In August, Parliament amended the law limiting the mandate of mediation committees to civil cases with a value not exceeding Rwf3 million while they can no longer hear criminal cases.
The Judiciary has avoided commenting on the proposed reforms saying it is up to the Executive and Parliament.
The Judiciary had, however, in 2014 endorsed proposals that sought to reduce the number of primary courts from 60 to 30, but this failed.
That time, Itamwa Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Judiciary told Rwanda Today that these reforms could help bridge the gap between courts that were receiving few cases with those especially in urban areas that receive many cases by shifting some judges who were in non-busy court to those with a huge workload.