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Ghana gets tough on judicial corruption

Tuesday 12 January 2016

RUTH GREEN

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The exposure of widespread corruption in Ghana’s judicial system shocked the world in 2015, but there are promising signs the country is taking a tough stance to get its judiciary back on track.

Allegations of corruption in Ghana’s judiciary are not unusual, but the scale of the problem came to light in September 2015, when a documentary by local investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas showed hours of video and audio footage revealing judges and magistrates accepting bribes to influence their decisions in court.

Nene Amegatcher

The documentary caused outcry across Ghanaian society, but Nene Amegatcher, Immediate Past President of the Ghana Bar Association and Vice-Chair of the IBA African Regional Forum, says the country’s Judicial Council is already sending a strong signal that 2016 will be the year it gets serious about stamping out judicial corruption.

‘I was surprised by the numbers – I thought there would be one or two judges perhaps – so I was very shocked by the number of judges involved,’ he says.

‘The Judicial Council has taken steps in the last five years to improve substantially the conditions of service of judges,’ he says.

‘The remuneration given to judges right now is such that they should be able to live comfortable lives without collecting any sort of bribes from parties, so that’s why we are surprised. But if the airing will expose the bad nuts in the justice delivery system and cause others to sit up, so be it.’

‘‘The negative impact of judicial corruption and loss of the right to a fair trial cannot be overstated

Sternford Moyo, Former President of the Law Society of Zimbabwe and Chair of the IBA’s African Regional Forum

The documentary implicated a total of 34 judges and magistrates, both at the High Court and lower court level. Amegatcher is a member of the country’s Judicial Council, and was also appointed to the five-strong disciplinary committee, which comprises both judges and lawyers and was set up to investigate complaints against the 21 lower court judges.

Some of the judges filed a writ contesting the legality of the inquiry and a separate injunction to halt the committee’s investigations, but both challenges were dismissed at the High Court. After carrying out its inquiry, on 7 December the committee dismissed 20 lower court judges and acquitted and discharged just one judge on lack of evidence.

At the High Court level, two now-retired judges have escaped impeachment, while a further three are challenging their impeachment in court. Impeachment proceedings for another judge are currently suspended while he is undergoing medical treatment.

Sternford Moyo

One other judge has been acquitted, but the Judicial Council set up two impeachment committees to handle the process against the remaining seven High Court judges and have submitted their recommendations to President John Dramani Mahama, who by law is the only person that can authorise their impeachment and removal from the bench.

Although there is no set timeframe for the President to respond, Amegatcher believes fast action is needed to restore public confidence in the judiciary:

‘The language of the Constitution states that the President will act but it does not give any timeframe and under common law when no timeframe is stipulated, you are permitted to do something within a "reasonable time". Now, what is a "reasonable time"? It’s debatable and has not been defined. We are hoping though that the President will act this year and if he really wants to stamp out corruption then our recommendations must be actioned as soon as possible,’ he says.

Sternford Moyo, former President of the Law Society of Zimbabwe and Chair of the IBA African Regional Forum, agrees that the problems facing Ghana are significant, but sadly not unique.

‘The negative impact of judicial corruption and loss of the right to a fair trial cannot be overstated,’ he says. ‘In addition to promoting injustice and unfairness, it undermines the rule of law and confidence in the administration of justice.’

‘Of even deeper concern is the fact that this is not a matter peculiar to the Ghana judiciary,’ says Moyo. ‘Allegations and perceptions of corruption have been made in a number of other African countries and indeed in other parts of the world as well.’

Once removed from the bench, the disgraced High Court judges may face prosecution by the Attorney General and will be struck off and disbarred by the General Legal Council.

Judges are not the only group under scrutiny though – so far the Judicial Council is investigating more than 100 administrative court staff caught on camera facilitating bribes.

To date, no lawyers have been implicated in the corruption scandal. 

At the beginning of January, Ghana’s Chief Justice Georgina Theodora Wood swore in five new circuit judges and eight magistrates to replace those judges that have already been dismissed. Although Ghana has around 380 judges, with an estimated 120 currently sitting in the High Court, Amegatcher says the shortage of judges in active service is putting severe strain on court resources.  

‘We do not have enough judges, but what the Chief Justice has done is to give other judges temporary oversight responsibilities for these courts, which implies that some judges are manning two courts as a temporary measure,’ says Amegatcher.

He noted that ten Appeal Court judges have also been transferred to the High Court to provide assistance until new appointments are made.

Both Moyo and Amegatcher believe reforming the appointment process and training for judges is vital to eradicate corruption in Ghana’s judiciary.

‘We already have the Judicial Training Institute, but that [largely] handles training for those that are coming into the service for the first time, rather than concentrating on continuous professional development for judges, so it’s quite likely that some of them lack training in ethics and that’s why they find themselves in that situation,’ says Amegatcher.

‘We also want to reform the appointment process, to learn from other jurisdictions, to use best practices and exchange ideas with other countries that are facing similar problems. For us it is an opportunity to weed the bad nuts out, to minimise corruption and get the right people in the judiciary. The Chief Justice is leaving no stone unturned in order to achieve this.’