The Civil Division of the High Court has issued an order blocking a meeting that had been called by the Uganda Law Society to discuss the conduct of Hoima High Court Judge, Byaruhanga Jesse Rwigyema.
The interim order was signed by His Worship Kintu Simon Ziritunsa, the Acting Registrar on behalf of His Lordship Emmanuel Baguma.
The decision follows an application by the Attorney General’s Chambers represented by Jeffrey Atwine, the Acting Commissioner for Civil Litigation, Elizabeth Namakula, a Senior State Attorney, and Mathew Buzarwa, a State Attorney.
The Uganda Law Society was represented by Matsiko Godwin Muhwezi. The order restrains the Uganda Law Society from holding an Extra Ordinary meeting that was to be held on Friday 12th January 2024.
The meeting was to discuss alleged gross judicial misconduct, incompetence, bias, irregularities, and illegalities exhibited by the judge, Byaruhanga Jesse Rugyema threatening the Tilenga Project-affected persons in Buliisa and Hoima districts.
In December 2023, Justice Byaruhanga Jesse Rugyema ruled in favor of the Attorney General’s application seeking to deposit money meant to compensate landowners to court.
He also ordered the eviction of one project-affected person who is said to have received compensation but has stubbornly refused to vacate the land for developments to go on.
The Attorney General was acting on an affidavit sworn by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Energy, Pauline Irene Bateebe.
Several lawyers including those who represented the Tilenga Project-affected Persons (PAPS) protested the manner and the way the judge handled the matter. They convinced the Uganda Law Society to call the Extra Ordinary Meeting that was to take place on Friday.
In the petition to the court, the Attorney General among other reasons asserted that the Uganda Law Society (ULS) lacked the appropriate jurisdiction to address issues related to judicial misconduct.
“The respondent is not seized with jurisdiction to handle matters of judicial misconduct, incompetence, bias, irregularities, and illegalities of judicial officers. The rights of the parties against judicial misconduct are protected by the judicial service commission, an appeal against the decision of judicial officer or removal of the judicial officer per Article 144 of the constitution,” the petition reads in part.
The Attorney General’s application was supported by an affidavit of a State Attorney in his chambers, Jackline Amusugut who stated that from her training as an Advocate, she understands that the Uganda Law Society Council is expected to exercise some degree of discretion or intellectual input in deciding the matters to place before the Extra Ordinary General Meeting and ensure that the matters to be discussed are within the statutory mandate.
The Attorney General further contended that the Uganda Law Society is not seized with jurisdiction to handle matters of judicial misconduct, incompetence, bias irregularities and illegalities of the judicial officers.
The evidence submitted by the Attorney General further indicated that such cases are supposed to be handled by the Judicial Service Commission as the appeal against the decision of the judicial officer or removal of that officer in line with Article 144 of the Constitution.
Prior to filing of the said application to block the meeting, the Attorney General initiated a judicial review on the same matter. The Attorney General highlighted the imminent danger that, unless restrained, the Uganda Law Society would persist in the unlawful actions of convening the extraordinary general meeting, potentially causing prejudice to the applicant and compromising the independence of the judiciary.
Last week, the Uganda Law Society issued a call for an extrajudicial meeting prompted by a petition filed by its members led by human rights lawyer Eron Kiiza. The petition leveled various accusations, including the assertion that Justice Byaruhanga breached established legal principles by rendering a verdict in the land case within a mere four days, without affording the accused parties the opportunity to respond or contest the matter.
The petition argued that such conduct not only contravenes well-established legal norms and lacks logical justification but also poses a threat to the rule of law. This has resulted in questioning the legitimacy of both the particular court and Justice Byaruhanga, eroding public trust in the judiciary.
On December 8th, Justice Byaruhanga issued a verdict against 42 landowners who contested the proposed compensation rates put forth by the government. The compensation was intended to facilitate the relocation of these landowners, paving the way for the development of oil infrastructure in line with the Tilenga project led by TotalEnergies.
Justice Byaruhanga also ruled that the government, represented by the Ministry of Energy and the Attorney General, could deposit the compensation funds with the court. Additionally, he mandated the acquisition of vacant possession of 59.674 acres of land for petroleum activities under the Tilenga project.
According to the ruling, the judge directed the government to deposit the assessed compensation, amounting to 945.8 million shillings, with the court for the specified land.
The ruling was considered groundbreaking by the affected individuals and human rights lawyers, particularly as land disputes commonly endure for years in the court system without reaching resolution. In light of the circumstances surrounding the case, these lawyers urged their umbrella body to formally address the alleged misconduct and take proactive measures to prevent its recurrence in the future.
Prior to submitting the petition to the Uganda Law Society, the same group of lawyers had already registered a separate complaint with the Judicial Service Commission. In this complaint, they levied accusations against Justice Jesse Byaruhanga Rugyema, citing judicial misconduct, incompetence, and bias in a case related to the Tilenga oil land dispute.
In the petition to Judicial Service Commission, the lawyers called for appropriate disciplinary actions against the judge and requested measures to prevent him from presiding over future cases related to oil.
“Prohibit his lordship Byaruhanga Jesse Rugyema from handling any matters relating to oil and related compensations in the high court of Uganda at Hoima and take any other appropriate action to reconstruct the shredded credibility of that supposed temple of justice,” the petition to Judicial Service Commission reads in part.
Lawyers Eron Kiiza and Dickens Kamugisha, the Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), also expressed concerns that Justice Byaruhanga’s judgment in the Tilenga Oil Land Dispute case could establish an unfavorable jurisprudential precedent, potentially enabling the government and individuals to forcibly acquire others’ land and properties.
The lawyers emphasized their commitment to assisting the affected individuals in appealing the matter in the Court of Appeal, seeking to safeguard against the establishment of a precedent that could adversely affect property rights.