The Judiciary has described as misunderstood and misinterpreted claims that there is a standoff between the Principal Judge to the head of the Commercial Court, Justice Stephen Mubiru, over a court case involving Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and John Imaniraguha, the proprietor of Fuelex stations.
In a statement issued on Saturday, December 9, 2023, the Judiciary said the letter by Dr. Flavian Zeija to Justice Mubiru was as a result of resolutions and recommendations arrived at during the ninth Quarterly Performance Retreat for Judges of the High Court who head High Court Circuits and Divisions held between November 23 and 24, 2023.
“One of the resolutions at the Retreat was that the Hon. Principal Judge writes to all Judges with pending backlog judgements and rulings to suspend taking on any new matters until disposal of backlogged judgements with clear time frames for delivery of the pending decisions,” the Judiciary said.
“As a result, the write up was issued on the December 1, 2023 to all judges with cases falling in that category and no specific judicial officer was targeted as it is being interpreted,” they said.
This came moments after the Uganda Law Society wrote to the Principal Judge, saying his directive to Justice Mubiru is illegal.
“Our attention has been drawn to your letter dated December 1, 2023, addressed to Hon. Justice Stephen Mubiru of the High Court Commercial Division. In that letter, you criticize Hon. Justice Mubiru for a backlog of 170 pending decisions and then purport to direct him to refrain from hearing any other matters in the next 60 days until a satisfactory report has been made on the delivery of all the pending decisions,” the law society president, Bernard Oundo, wrote on December 9.
“While your concerns on the case backlog are generally appreciated and shared by the Bar and the public, your direction is illegal and has grave implications on fundamental tenets of the administration of justice starting with the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary,” they add.
The Uganda Law Society said it is particularly troubling that the Principal Judge’s directive appears to come in the wake of a landmark ruling by Hon. Mubiru on the independence of the Judiciary “in which he criticized your interference with a decision of a Registrar.”
“The timing of your directive makes it appear retaliatory and an attack on Hon. Justice Mubiru for his judicial decision. This does not bode well for public confidence and trust in the judiciary, and can only have a dampening effect on the confidence of the members of the Judiciary,” they added.
In a December 4, 2023, ruling, Justice Stephen Mubiru ruled that it was improper for the Deputy Registrar of the court to issue a Garnishee Order Nisi in favour of the Fuelex boss and then recall it on the same day basing on the orders of the Principal Judge.
The order was directing Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) to pay Shs26b to John Imaniraguha, the proprietor of Fuelex stations, as costs for the repair of his vehicles and compensation for his fuel earlier impounded by the tax body.
On 27th, October 2023, the Deputy Registrar of the Commercial Court issued a Garnishee Order Nisi in favour of the applicant (Fuelex) for the recovery of a sum of Shs26.261b from three URA accounts held in Stanbic Bank Limited.
However, the same day, the Deputy Registrar issued another order, recalling the Garnishee Order Nisi on the directive of the Principal Judge. A Garnishee order nisi is a court order served on financial institutions, banks or any person believed to be in possession of funds of a judgment debtor.
But Imaniraguha, through his lawyers of M/s Tumusiime, Kabega & Co Advocates, petitioned court, saying the registrar does not powers to recall a court order basing on the doctrine of functus officio.
“The doctrine of functus officio (that is, having performed his office) holds that once the court renders a decision regarding the issues submitted, it lacks any power to re-examine that decision,” he argued.
In his ruling, Justice Mubiru agreed with the businessman that court has no powers to alter its own judgment except for the limited purpose of correcting clerical or mathematical errors.
“However the reason given by the Learned Deputy Registrar for recalling the order is not that there had been a slip in dating the order, but rather that she had been “directed by Hon. The Principal Judge in a letter dated 27th October, 2023,” to do so. If this be true, it presents a prima facie affront on decisional independence as a key element in the exercise of judicial power which, if accepted in future cases, would constitute a significant dilution of the protection afforded to decisional independence,” he ruled.
Justice Mubiru added that the decisional independence of a judicial officer should free from control or 20 interference, not only by the legislative and executive arms, but also by judiciary administrators.
“Decisional judicial independence involves such a fundamental or core judicial functions that it must be preserved absolutely from internal administrative interference to preserve the integrity of judicial power. From a functionalist perspective, to allow judiciary administrators to interfere with an adjudication, to influence or direct the outcome in a pending case, or to alter a final judgment as between the parties, would constitute a breach of judicial independence, a doctrine so fundamental that it would seriously undermine the very integrity and independence of the judicial power,” he said.
“There is need to maintain the courts’ decisional independence in the face of administrative power. The impugned letter by the Principal Judge to the learned Deputy Registrar effectively directs an outcome of a judicial adjudication in a specific case,” he added.
Nevertheless, the Judiciary said there is no infighting in the Judiciary.
“We implore you to remain calm as the Judiciary strives to fulfill its constitutional mandate,” they said.