Chief Justice (CJ) Rizine Mzikamanda has given all High Court Judges 90 days to deliver judgements on all outstanding cases in their courts, following growing concerns from litigants, some of whom have waited for justice for over 10 years.
High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal Registrar Kondwani Banda disclosed this when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee (Pac) of Parliament.
He said, notwithstanding problems encountered in the course of administering justice, judges have been challenged to endeavour to complete matters before them within a reasonable time once cases commence.
Banda said Mzikamanda issued the memo three weeks ago and has undertaken to provide the necessary support to the judges, even if it means giving them some days off from hearing new matters until they clear their backlog.
He, however, said the shortage of judges was a contributing factor to the issue of delayed judgements, with about 50 High Court judges serving 18 million Malawians.
“We are understaffed. You will appreciate that we have 50 judges, less than 300 magistrates and about 208 lay magistrates. But we understand that our mandate is to deliver justice to Malawians; that’s why the CJ has moved in to ensure that there is a mechanism of addressing the issues. If there are challenges, he has offered to give them help. Some of the judges might actually need some time off the bench,” Banda said.
He, however, reported that there are judges who have developed ailments like High Blood Pressure and became hysterical due to the pressure of work.
In the long term, Banda said the Judiciary has put up a Performance Management Committee to ensure that judicial officers are measured and held accountable for what they do in the service.
He admitted that assessing the performance of judicial officers is somehow problematic because of the elements involved in doing the work.
“We are trying to look for best practices in other jurisdictions and isolate those that can work for us within the prevailing circumstances; need I say that, in as much as we want speedy judgements, the question is whether they will be quality judgements that we will all be satisfied with. To do that is not an easy [thing],” Banda said.
However, Pac Chairperson Shadric Namalomba asked the office of the registrar to make public names of judges with outstanding judgements and details of the cases in question to hold the judicial officers accountable but Banda said the judges have been tasked to compile their cases and report to the CJ accordingly.
Commenting on the development, Malawi Law Society (MLS) President Patrick Mpaka described the move as commendable.
He said the society has, in recent months, engaged in one-on-one meetings with judges on the same issue in a bid to have a clear picture of the situation.
“We, as MLS, had engaged in a one-on-one exercise to find out the actual challenges facing individual judicial officers. We stopped before our annual general meeting in March and we will resume that exercise so that we find out the actual challenges and offer practical solutions based on our findings after the exercise,” he said.
In Feb 2018, former CJ Andrew Nyirenda issued a warning to judges but the situation has not improved in recent years.