Congrats! New CJ…But uneasy head wears the crown

Ms. SOphia Akuffo

Ms. SOphia Akuffo

Throughout the world, the judiciary is revered because of its exceptional responsibility as a check on possible excesses of legislative and executive organs of government.

The judiciary, which is the third arm of government, is also the guardian-protector of the constitution and fundamental rights of the citizenry, as well as the promoter of democracy, rule of law and good governance.

So sacred is the judiciary that it is protected under the judicial independence as stipulated in Article 127 (1) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, which states that: “in the exercise of the judicial power of Ghana, the Judiciary, in both its judicial and administrative functions, including financial administration, is subject only to this Constitution and shall not be subject to the control or direction of any person or authority.”

Also, conditions of service for judges and officers of the judiciary, including expenses, salaries, allowances, gratuities and pensions, are expected to be charged on the consolidated fund.

These arrangements seek to insulate the judiciary from the control of the executive and legislature or from private or partisan interests.

According to Ghana’s political arrangement, the Chief Justice (CJ) is the fourth in chain of command after the President, Vice President and Speaker of Parliament.

This is the reason anytime a CJ exit office, individuals, organisations, civil society, politicians and observers of the governance system follow with keen interest the search for a successor.

It is, therefore, not surprising that expectations of Ghanaians were high when President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was confronted with the task of selecting and appointing a new CJ, to take over from the former first woman CJ, Mrs Georgina Wood, who retired on June 8, this year, amidst speculations by the media and the public, as to who gets the nod.
Finally, the dust has settled, and the President has appointed, and sworn into office Justice Ms Sophia Akuffo, a Supreme Court (SC) Judge, as the new C.J, after Parliament Appointments Committee vetted her, and approved by the plenary session of the House.

This is in accordance with Article 144 (1) of the Constitution, which provides that: “the Chief Justice shall be appointed by the President, acting in consultation with the Council of State and with the approval of Parliament.”

Certainly, Ms Akuffo, who becomes the second female CJ, and the 13th CJ since independence, has what it takes to head the country’s judiciary, as she is one of the country’s longest serving SC judges with vast experience.

The new CJ, who was appointed to the SC 22 years ago, is the second most senior judge at the highest court of the land, after Mr Justice William Atuguba.

Ms Akuffo obtained a Master’s Degree in Law (LLM) from the University of Harvard in the United States of America (USA), and a leading voice on human rights issues, rule of law and child rights.

She has been a member of the governing committee of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute and Chairperson of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Taskforce.

In January 2006, Ms Akuffo was elected as one of the first judges of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and re-elected until 2014 when she served as the Vice-President.

She is the immediate past President of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, member of the Disciplinary Committee of the General Legal Council and the Committee of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute.

The CJ publications include the Application of Information & Communication Technology in the Judicial Process – The Ghanaian Experience, presented to the African Judicial Network Ghana (2002).

Fortunately for Ms Akuffo, she is taking over from a predecessor, who has worked hard to bring reforms and integrity to the judiciary.
Mrs Wood established manual on election adjudication in Ghana ahead of 2008, 20012 and 2016 polls, ensured the renovation, and building of courts, including a huge one in Accra, refurbishment of the CJ residence, building of bungalows for high court judges, and supported efforts to equip the judiciary with Information Communication and Technology facilities.

She initiated the Alternative Dispute Resolution, to facilitate the settlement of disputes, and Justice For All Programme, to ease congestions in the country’s prison, especially regarding prisoners on remand with expired warrants.

Mrs Wood established 14 courts, to expedite action on illegal mining cases, and Gender-Based Violence Court, in Accra, to settle domestic violence cases.

Special courts for land, labour, human rights, financial and economic crimes, and weekend courts were also set up, to enhance the adjudication of cases.

The former CJ was instrumental in the extension of Court of Appeal to the regions and appointment of judges with oversight responsibility for these courts, and building of child-friendly facilities at juvenile courts.

Under her administration, the country has launched the Legal and Justice Sector Reform, aimed at improving justice delivery, and signed Judicial Anti-corruption Compact agreement, initiated by the International Bar Association, aimed at mobilising anti-corruption crusaders in judicial systems worldwide, among others.

On the issue of corruption, Mrs Wood supported the public and stakeholders in the fight against the canker in the judicial system. She threw her weight behind Ghana’s investigative journalist, Anas Aremeyaw Anas’ exposure of corruption in the judiciary.

Indeed, these are legacies that would form part of standards for measuring the performances of succeeding CJs.

However, there is more to be done to enable judges and officers of the judiciary to carry out their constitutional mandate of delivering justice to the people.

The new CJ is coming into office at a time the advocacy for judicial reforms, infrastructure development and improvement in working conditions of judges and other staff, is being intensified.

Recently, SC judge, Justice Jones Dotse, urged for the settin uo of a criminal justice commission to overhaul the criminal justice laws, to meet acceptable modern practice.

He said: “the current law is responsible for the cruel remand system, which has led to huge number of people being dumped in prisons without access to a hearing as well as also accounting for the unbearable delays in the hearing of and disposal of criminal cases although the constitution requires such cases to be heard within a reasonable time period.”

The judge, who was speaking at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration Faculty of Law/Help Ghana symposium on the state of the criminal justice system in the country, in Accra, noted that there was overcrowding in prisons due to archaic and illogical systems and punishments enshrined in the law.

He said that 226 out of 1,637 remand prisoners were appearing before court with others left in prison by investigators and police personnel.

A private legal practitioner, Mr Martin Kpebu, suggested the setting up of criminal cases review commission, to evaluate cases and decisions of the court, to establish the truth or otherwise of cases, to prevent innocent people from being imprisoned based on false evidence, as is being practiced in the United Kingdom.

He urged for the modernisation of criminal prosecution system to make use of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) in the determination of perpetrators of criminal offences.

Aside these observations, delays in delivery of justice, whether or not there should be ceiling for the number of justices that may be appointed to the SC, and whether or not the financial autonomy granted the judiciary in Article 127 is adequate to shield it from executive control, continue to engage the attention of the public.

The occasional strike by Judicial Service Staff Association of Ghana over allowances and salaries, and other working conditions of members, poor conditions of service and unattractive nature of the judiciary discouraging more qualified and experienced lawyers, to join the bench, need to be addressed.

There is shortage of judicial personnel across the country, and courts are choked with cases, some pending for so long that some litigants have lost interest in them, due to snail pace at which court cases proceed.

Some court buildings are in a bad state, and the judiciary is being confronted with low funding and inadequate allocation of resources.

It appears the new CJ is the toast of the public, and all eyes would be on her as to how she tackles these challenges, to enable the judiciary discharge its mandate of promoting human rights and good governance.

We are very mindful of the fact that when the judicial system breaks down, a country heads towards chaos.

Consequently, Ms Akuffo would be expected to consolidate the gains of her forerunner, and initiate comprehensive plans, to enable the judiciary to function effectively and efficiently.

Though the judiciary is independent of the executive, legislature and public in the discharged of its duties, the CJ would have no alternative than to work with all stakeholders in solving problems, so that the judiciary can live up to expectation.

By Clemence Okumah

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