Lawyers, Judiciary clash over meeting to discuss Museveni’s letter

Uganda Law Society President, Mr Bernard Oundo (L) and Uganda's Chief Justice, Mr Alphonse Owiny-Dollo (Photo/File/DEXP)

Kampala, (UG): A section of the members of the Uganda Law Society clashed with the Judiciary following the High Court’s recent decision blocking their Extra Ordinary General Meeting that wanted to discuss among others the independence of the Judiciary.

In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, the members of the society led by ULS President Bernard Oundo said they have now reached the extent of plotting to boycott the Judiciary’s New Law Year slated for today, Friday, February 9th, 2024.

New Law Year is the biggest annual event in the Judiciary that brings together all heads of the three arms of government where the Chief Justice accounts to the people what the Judiciary did in the immediate past year and what they intend to do within that New Year.

Now, the aggrieved lawyers are rallying all their colleagues to push back against what they describe as obnoxious gag order and condemn all persons and authorities plotting to gag them.

The lawyers are Eron Kiiza, Jude Byamukama, Daniel Walyemera, Sarah Kasande, Phillip Karugaba, Peter Arinaitwe, Anthony Odur, Isaac Ssemakadde and Frank Kanduho.

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The statement arises from the February 6th, 2024 decision in which the Civil Division High Court Judge Musa Ssekaana blocked the meeting that was slated for yesterday following a successful application by one of the members of ULS Brian Kirima against his professional body where he said he would suffer irreparable damages if the meeting went on.

Kirima petitioned the court, adding that such a meeting could lead to the passing of resolutions that are not only illegal and outrageous but absurd – bringing disgrace and embarrassment to the society of which he would suffer as a member.

The issues that were scheduled for discussion were related to the independence of the judiciary. President Yoweri Museveni in a letter dated December 7, 2023, wrote to Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo regarding the management and handling of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) property case with businessman Justus Kyabahwa.

Museveni wondered how a judge could issue an order attaching the national mosque.

Justice Ssekaana accordingly agreed with one of the members amidst opposition from the ULS through their Secretary Isaac Atukunda who swore an affidavit seeking dismissal of the application.

Following Justice Ssekaana’s decision, the lawyers say in their statement what they describe as putative injunction, that the same court fatally disregarded Section 16(1) of the ULS Act and its previous rulings shielding public bodies from the encroachment of their statutory powers, rights, and duties unless there is a prima facie case that “they are acting unlawfully”.

They argue that the seven padded ruling of Ssekaana, gagging a bundle of Article 29 rights of ULS members to freedom of association, assembly, and expression on the speculative basis that some resolutions from the intended meeting on a matter of public interest may be illegal, marks a new low for  Judiciary and the national bar association.

“It was previously inconceivable that the Bench could trample on the rights of the Bar in such capricious fashion. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers and International Bar Association-IBA Standards for the Independence of the Legal Profession guarantee the right of Members of Bar Associations, collectively or individually, to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law and administration of justice, as the suppressed EGM intended,” reads the statement.

According to the lawyers, it is misleading and dangerous for the Judiciary to suggest that such professional lawyers’ gatherings are subject to its approval.

“We trust that our erstwhile capable leaders will swiftly move the court to vacate/expunge this aberration from the annals of our judicial record. The purpose of the one-hour EGM meeting was as clear as crystal: to discuss recent threats to judicial independence, the most egregious being a letter dated 7 December 2023, from the Head of State ordering the Chief Justice to intervene extra-judicially in a court matter, and the obsequious silence of our leaders at the Bar and the Bench”, adds the statement.

The lawyers contend that without respect for the independence of the Judiciary, the practice of law will be rendered meaningless and therefore a strong, independent, and impartial judiciary is a cornerstone of any democracy and non-negotiable for good governance and the Rule of Law.

“We urge members of the ULS and all the citizenry to stand up in defense of these constitutional principles.  We cannot have an independent Judiciary minus a robust and active Bar Association. That equation is unconstitutional” it adds.

The angry lawyers further argue that the censors are always resoundingly defeated in the course of history and are confident that this injunction they describe as manifestly void injunction will also have a short-lived and disgraceful voyage to the dustbin of history.

“Lastly, it bears repeating that the purpose of this judicial aberration is to muzzle members’ voices and render the ULS obsequious towards the powerful and arrogant towards the weak. We must resist.

They believe that it is cynical and disingenuous to gather with those that block their gatherings, in the name of “People-Centered Justice”. The statements from the members of the bar are a mockery of the ongoing Judges Conference which is being held under the theme “A People-Centered Approach to Justice”.

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This is the second time the High Court has blocked an extraordinary general meeting called by the Uganda Law Society this year.

Last month, the same court issued an order blocking them from convening to sit and discuss issues related to the management and conduct of Hoima High Court judge Jesse Byaruhanga Rugyema in the Tilenga Oil case where they say there was unfairness,  slot88 gross unprofessional ism and bias allegedly exhibited by the Judge.

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