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Sunday, July 21, 2024

The misconceptions and myths surrounding the Judicial Officers Remuneration and Entitlements Bill 2024 – The need for such  legal framework to maintain and encourage the independence of the Judiciary

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By M R R

The fact that the Judicial officers Remuneration and Entitlements Bill 2024 is being tabled together with the National Assembly Salaries and Pensions Bill 2024 has somewhat created a veil that blinds the masses of the importance and crucial necessity of having an independent and robust judiciary.

By no stretch of human imagination can there be comparisons between the Judges of the superior courts and that of our National Assembly members especially members of the 6th legislature.

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Whilst there is already a pension scheme for National Assembly members,  a hefty and lucrative salary, luxurious benefits such as per-diems, sitting allowances and most notably a co-ownership luxury vehicle at a street value of over 3 million dalasis, Judicial officers have absolutely no pension scheme, don’t receive per-diems, are not paid sitting allowances for hearings and last time they had   vehicles allocated to them was over 7 years ago.

The vital role that the judiciary has played in bringing some form of functionality and sanity to our otherwise confused state of affairs whilst ensuring that The Rule of law remains a thriving concept in maintaing our democratic ideals and system is unmatched in Gambias history where issues of effective governance are of great concern.

It is absolutely and utterly absurd that Judicial officers in exercising their functions can be compared to National Assembly members or any other professional cadre within the civil and public service of The Gambia.

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Wheresase the General Orders provide for goverment officers to accept paid work outside their contractual working hours with goverment,  judges are prohibited from doing so. Not only are they prohibited from doing so whilst in active duty but they are barred from engaging in any paid work after retirement except whereas it is to teach the law.

I must state that even with the just mentioned leeway of teaching the law,  judges lecturing at the Gambia Law School are not paid salaries and other benefits but are given allowances only.

Judges unlike other goverment employees are not privy to attending meetings abroad where they can receive hefty per-diems because 97% of trips embarked upon by judges are funded by the inviting state and thus according to gogerment policy they are only entitled to travel grants of £300 which is exchanged at the prevailing Central Bank exchange rate at the time.

A lot of Gambians including myself have complained about the slow pace of justice dispensation in our courts and the frustration and pain it brings. However , what we fail to acknowledge is that The Gambia remains the only country in the universe were judges are required to write in “long-hand” the entire records of proceedings of a matter before them capturing every single detail whilst having to listen to parties advance their arguments and are also expected to adjucate fairly and equitably.

Imagine the long term health conditions that most of our judges suffer most notably arthritis due to constant and repeated handling of pen and recording every sense and nonsense that happens in court. Imagine the number of books that a judge could have published in a 25 year career serving on the bench. Then you have such a judge to retire and receive a meager pension of about 10 thousand Gambian dalasis. Are we not a people of conscience and thought?

The last bastion of hope for our nation is vested in the Judicial arm of government that curbs and checks the excesses of both the National Assembly and the Excutive. Thus far they have done a brilliant and phenomenal job at it and to the extent that most Gambians have now become more litigious. Before you say Jack Robinson, gambians are now ready and confident to approach the courts. This was not the case during the reign of former President Jammeh where the independence of the judiciary was in great question.

The fact and the undiluted truth is that we as a people now have confidence in our courts and not only that but we can see and feel the independence of our judiciary. This is a milestone achievement in this dispensation because the judiciary was not spared in being victimised by the former regime and some of our judges are still scarred and paying the price for only performing their duties without fear or favor.

Just a few weeks ago, the Minister of Lands was quoted as saying in a press conference that the judges must be mindful of passing judgment against the goverment. When you hear a sitting minister utter these words it tells the unsuspecting mind that this is an issue that has been discussed within cabinet circles and this only means one thing; we have an independent workable arm of goverment who is not swayed by executive incentives or power.

In the life time of a Judges career and in the execution of their duties,  they would have sentenced to prison many individuals some of whom are hard-core criminals. They would have adjucated over highly contentious land matters against family’s,  clans, and ethnic groups.  They would have considered matters of highly polarised religious issues where resentment and bitterness may be deeply seated. Do we expect such judges to be without security after serving their tenure? Are we not being selfish and constricted in our thoughts ?

What hope do we have as a country and by extension a people if our Judiciary does not attract the brightest and best, men and women of unmatched integrity , substance and with the highest academic qualifications and experience?

Are we not the same crop of people that attacked the slow pace of dispensation in a concluded rape trial just a few moons ago where reasons for adjournment were so ludacris that it blew our imagination? Do we wish to see the reoccurrence of such by having a water-down judiciary were our judges are mostly thinking about what happens to them after retirement ? The answer is no.

Whilst am recognising the hardship and economic situation of our country we must never forget that these same judges equally face such harships and are the greatest bearers of the economic brunch. Whilst some of us can rely on outside funding,  fundraising gestures, gofundme campaigns and just normal gifts, the judges of our courts cannot enjoy such privileges.

The fact is that we Gambians are quick to say and mention the economic hardship when it suites us. Where is the money coming from when our footballers are playing international matches? Where is the money coming from when the President goes on meet the people tours? Where is the money coming from when we host foreign dignitaries? Where did the money come from when goverment allocated over 57 state of the art luxury SUVs with a street market value of over 3 million dalasis each to our NAMs?

Where is the money coming from is a redundant question that is fallaciously rhetorical and have no place in this discourse.

We are told that 100 luxury vehicles were purchased by goverment for the just concluded OIC. We are made to believe that there is already distribution amongst goverment officials within the executive arm but have we heard anywhere that our judges are given vehicles ? The answer is no.

Who is more deserving of such gestures ? Do we want our judges boarding commercial vehicles because their cars are in various mechanic garages ? We need to start putting out money where our mouth is. The fact is that the Judiciary,  thus far,  in this new dispensation,  have proven itself and have made phenomenal strides in checking the excesses of the executive.

We need to pass a bill that seeks to protect our Judicial officers who actually are working the walk and cannot be find sleeping through deliberations and sittings like our people at the outskirts of Banjul.

Contrary to popular belief and misconceptions being bandied about, the Judicial Officers Remuneration and Entitlements Bill 2024 does not in anyway shape or form mean an automatic increase in salaries and benefits of our Judicial officers.

What this Bill seeks to do is to create the legal framework as stipulated by the 1997 constitution that allows for the Judicial Service Commission to look into the remuneration, pension and terms of service of Judicial officers WHEN GOVERMENT CONDUCTS PUBLIC SERVICE PAY REVIEW.

If goverment does not call for a public service pay review for the next 20 years, the Judicial Service commission cannot have the legal standing to submit a report that has looked into the benefits of judges to the President.

Furthermore,  the constitution stipulates that there should be an Act of parliament that deals with the Remuneration and Entitlements of Judicial officers and the said proposed bill is a fulfilment of this constitutional requirement.

S142(2)  states that “A judge of a superior court shall be entitled to such salary, allowances, and on retirement such gratuity and pension, as may be prescribed by an Act of the National assembly.”

If there is no Act of the national assembly such as the proposed Judicial officers Remuneration and Entitlements Bill 2024, then the Judicial Service Commission cannot look into the pension of judges because there is no legal framework and basis for this. Hence the need to pass the Judicial Officers Renumeration and Entitlements Bill 2024.

Finally, the constitution mandates that only the Judicial Sevice Commission can look into the Remuneration and pension benefits if Judges and the commission SHALL not be subjected to the direction and control of any authority in doing so. This is what the 1997 constitution says. It is not being made up.

Section 147 of the 1997 Constitution states: “

“In addition to the other functions conferred on the Judicial Service Commission by this Constitution, the Commission shall have power-

(B) to make recommendations as to the terms and

conditions of service of judges and other judicial

officer and officers and staff of the courts;”

The misconception that this bills gives undue privileges to Judges is indeed nothing hut a misrepresentation of the issues therein and a misconception of the facts.

As a nation that prides itself on the clarion call for democratic process and respect for Rule of Law, we must begin to embrace the law holistically and not selectively, when it only goes with our wishes and desires.

The law indeed may be an ass but it nonetheless remains the law.

National Assembly members are duty bound to pass the Judicial Officers Remuneration and Entitlements Bill 2024 as it is a constitutional requirement as dictated by the 1997 constitution of The Gambia which remains the supreme law of our nation.

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