My time as Chief Justice has been a learning experience – Prof Rugege

Prof. Sam Rugege will next month wind up his tenure as Chief Justice, having served up his eight-year non-renewable term at the top of the Rwandan judiciary. 

Before this appointment in 2011, he had served as Deputy Chief Justice and has been a key player in the judicial sector reforms which started in 2004.

In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi, Rugege explored the key milestones of his tenure, the selection process of his successor, his plans after he leaves office, among others.

Excerpts:

It has been 16 years at the summit of the country’s judicial sector; first as Deputy Chief Justice, then as Chief Justice how has the journey been like?

It has been a rather challenging but interesting journey. It has been a process of learning and improving my management skills, my knowledge of the law, and also knowledge of the Rwandan society. So, it has been quite a learning experience.

But also enjoyable, to know that I have managed to give some service to my country, to give my contribution to the rebuilding of Rwanda and especially the judicial system.

What can you say have been the milestones judiciary has achieved over these years?

There has been a lot. First, we inherited a system which was clogged with cases. There was a huge backlog of cases in 2004 when we started implementing the reforms and this backlog has been considerably reduced.

I think we had something like 54,000 pending cases in 2004, then we introduced contract judges at the primary courts, which helped us engage more judges than we were allowed to have. Having recruited them into the primary courts, then there were those in the primary courts who were temporarily promoted to the intermediate level, and those at the intermediate court went to the high court.

So, within about five years, we were able to reduce the number of cases that were stuck in courts. We had cases even going as far back as 80s, but progressively, those have been reduced. We have very few cases now that we regard as backlogs.

That situation affected all courts including the Supreme Court. And at the Supreme Court, we had a specific problem because we sat as a bench of minimum three, sometimes five, sometimes more judges. We never sat as single judges and so, cases couldn’t move fast.

So, we had to restructure the judiciary, and we continually tried to find ways of making sure that we were more efficient and therefore more productive, including the recent reforms of combining primary courts, making them have more judges in one place and therefore be able to decide more cases.

Then we created the Court of Appeal last year, which has taken over the cases that were stuck in the Supreme Court.

That is one aspect of reducing the cases and therefore bringing justice to those who had waited too long.

The other main issue that we have dealt with, is the quality of justice. We have over the years focused on quality justice, because in the past, people did not only complain about their cases delaying in court, but they also complained about the result of the decisions.

So, we have done a lot of training over the years to improve knowledge and skills of our judges. We have made them more open to seeking the knowledge from outside. In other words; doing research, using comparative law, comparative jurisprudence or case law from other countries.

Not only from civil law system, which they were used to, and which they were trained in but also to look elsewhere, from common law from other jurisdictions, how they handle certain types of problems in order to give equitable justice.

So, our judges have been more professional, more open-minded, and willing to look elsewhere to see what can best serve in the interests of Rwandans.

Then we have, in terms of efficiency, the use of IT, (which) has helped us to improve our systems, making them more efficient, and therefore improving the speed and quality of justice again. We have tested many electronic systems to make our work more efficient and faster. From 2004, we had some Canadian based system, it was more like a storage system for cases.

And then in 2011, we introduced electronic filing system, where people could then file their cases electronically without having to come to court, but it was a limited thing. Once they filed, they could not follow up their cases online, judges never used it, and it was only used by the registrars.

So, in 2016, we introduced the integrated case management system (ICMS), which is much more advanced, much more efficient, and much more useful to the judiciary and to the whole justice sector.

It enables people to file cases, or their lawyers to file their cases on their behalf in the system, then they have access to the system. 

They can follow up their cases, they can file their pleadings and additional documents.

It has made the work of the judiciary and other sister institutions much more efficient, and therefore justice is being delivered much faster than more than before.

The recruitment of judicial staff has improved over time. As you know, when we started reforms in 2004, many judges, especially lower court judges didn’t have law degrees. So, over this period, those who didn’t have degrees registered for part-time studies and acquired the qualifications.

Now all judges and almost all the registrars have degrees, many of them have Masters Degrees. So, the quality of our staff has also gone up.

How far have the reforms gone and what impact have they made on the Rwandan population?

I think they have succeeded substantially because as I mentioned during the launch of the judicial year 2019-2020, our approval rating has gone up substantially. There was a time when we were at like 60 per cent, in the last few years, then we went up to 70 per cent. Now we are at 88.4 per cent, according to RGB (Rwanda Governance Board).

I think that is very impressive. And we can only attribute that to the efficiency of the system in delivering justice, making sure that people get justice on time, but also to the satisfaction rate, as far as decisions themselves are concerned.

There are fewer people now complaining about their cases, or saying there was corruption in the case. In the past, almost everybody who lost a case claimed that there had been corruption in their case, because they didn’t know how the process worked.

But there is a lot of transparency in the judicial process these days. People can follow their cases on the internet, there is little contact between the litigants and the officers of the court. So, people are now more satisfied that what is being done is being done properly.

Also, one of the issues in trying to professionalise our personnel was judgement writing. In the past, most of the cases were short, and we would have a statement of the facts that litigant said [rumaze kumva, (having heard) …], then at the last page they say ‘rusanze’ (we find), and then they state the law and they state their decision.

What we have been going through over the past 10 years, has been to have trainings on judgement writing. Because the law requires that the judge pronounces, in a written judgement, which provides reasons for the judgement. So, you couldn’t give reason to your judgement on the last page.

We have now trained our judges to be systematic and logical in their judgements; state the origin of the problem, the facts, the issues that you are supposed to find out and to make a decision on, and then put the arguments of both parties, then give your reasons based on the law and other cases which had been decided.

That has been a very central aspect; improving the quality of judgement in the courts. And it is a continuing process because as we get new judges we have to train them in that. So, that’s why we can say there is much more satisfactory.

As you wind up your tenure, are you satisfied with the state of the judiciary in Rwanda?

Yes! I would say I am satisfied. I can’t say we have a perfect system, but I think there is always room for improvement. The judiciary has built itself to a satisfactory position, but it can still improve. There is always more to learn.

We can do things better. But on the whole, I am happy with what we have achieved. One thing I would want us to continue working on is to resolve cases outside the courts. Outside the usual procedures of the courts, especially through mediation.

We have already started some form of mediation that when the parties file their cases, before the case starts, we invite them for a pre-trial conference.

Does this happen at all levels of the courts?

Yes, at all levels.

The law now requires that before a case starts, before it is heard, the registrar will try to bring the parties together and ask if they are willing to be mediated. If they have to look at the issues in the case and see whether there are any points of agreement and any points of disagreement. Or at least how many issues of agreement, or how many issues do they disagree on.

If there are substantial parts of the case on which they agree, then there is a possibility that they can agree even on what they disagree on. So, the registrar can help them settle their dispute at that level so that it does not continue in the court process.

If they do not agree, even the judge, when the case starts, having looked at the report of the pre-trial conference, can decide that this case is capable of being mediated. The parties can agree and settle the dispute outside the court process.

The judge himself or herself can mediate between them if they agree. If they want to go out and try mediation with an outside person, they are also allowed to do that. They are given that opportunity. So, this has already started, it has reduced the number of cases coming at the trial stage.

The point here is, we are trying to reduce cases that continue into hearing, because it is costly, it takes a lot of time, we have limited resources, if people can settle their cases through mediation, then that would be the best thing. And usually when people settle their disputes through mediation, they are happier about the results. When they come to court, and go through the process until judgement is given, one person will win, one person will lose. And inevitably one will be unhappy about the results.

We are now training our judges to carry out mediation and so, reduce the number of cases that stay in the court system. Our main challenge these days is that whereas in the past cases had started reducing, things have changed of late.

Now they are beginning to increase again, partly because the cases that were being handled by Abunzi some of them have been now brought back to court system, especially criminal cases.

But also because of the confidence that the citizens have in the court, more and more are filing their cases than they were doing before.

So, confidence in the courts can work both sides. It is good that people have confidence in the court system, but it can also attract unnecessary litigation which can be settled in other ways. So, we are trying to find ways of keeping away as many disputes as possible.

Over the years, reports by watchdogs have implicated the judiciary as being among the sectors with a high prevalence of corruption. How far have you gone in fighting corruption in the judicial system?

We have been fighting corruption as much as we can, and I can say we have been successful in many ways, but that doesn’t mean that there is no corruption at all in the judiciary.

We still find cases of corruption, as I said the other day, over the last eight years, 44 judges and registrars have been either dismissed or given other punishments, because of misconduct, some of it, based on corruption.

Those who are found have been guilty of corruption are dismissed, there is no option. That has deterred some potential people being involved in corruption, but it has not got rid of corruption completely. We have taken a number of measures, mainly through sensitizing the judges and members of the community, to speak up whenever one tries to solicit a bribe and other forms of corruption.

The way we assess our success in that is that some judges have come up to accuse members of the society who have tried to bribe them. They have assisted law enforcement officers to get them, and also the other way, members of the public have responded to our call to point out those who are involved in corruption among the judges, some have even gone to jail, and they are serving sentences because they were caught through those means.

We have a section of the inspectorate of courts. We have an inspector who is in charge of following up ethics or cases of corruption, and once they get information, they follow up on that, interview the complainant, then they interview the accused judge or registrar, and other witnesses.

Once they have a full report, they bring it to us, we take it to the judicial high council which has a disciplinary committee, which will hear the judicial officer concerned and consider the case. If there is substance in the case, it will come to the judicial council, the person will be tried or questioned, and a decision will be taken. Then a sanction will be taken.

The IT system that we use also helped us in fighting corruption. Cases are filed online, fees are paid online, so, the litigant does not have to come to court to meet the registrar or to meet a judge before the case starts. That has considerably reduced opportunities for corruption. Because a litigant has no reason to come because everything can be done online.

There is also a new platform called sobanuza inkiko, where members of the public can express their dissatisfaction, they can report cases of corruption, they can file claims where there has been injustice in their cases. So, all that has helped in fighting corruption, and I think it has been successful.

It is difficult to get rid of the problem completely because it is not just an issue of one institution. Usually, where there is corruption, there is a kind chain of people working together to effect that corruption.

We have some policemen or investigators, prosecutors, lawyers and judges who are involved in corruption. So, we all have to fight from our own institutions, coordinate and work together to fight this scourge of corruption.

There has over the past few months been an increase in public interest litigations by members of the public to the Supreme Court, challenging different laws which they say stampede the Constitution. Why now?

I am not sure why over the last few years or months, why it has picked up, but as the President said the other day, it looks like because people are more satisfied with the work of the judiciary, because they have trust in courts that they can protect their interests. That has encouraged them to come up and express their interests.

Also, there were some reforms in 2018, which introduces provisions allowing individuals, NGO’s, universities to be able to petition the Supreme Court about a law which might be not in the public interest or which might be undermining the public interest or violating the constitution.

Once we have one case, and it is well publicized, then others also start thinking about issues that they might bring to the Supreme Court. So, over a couple of years we had constitutional cases on women’s rights, gender equality, then we had that case on defamation of public officials. I think that has raised public awareness about this avenue of protecting their rights and protecting the public interest.

I think it is not a bad thing that people should test the validity of laws in the courts, sometimes parliament may pass a law saying that that is what the citizens want, but without realizing that it also infringes on the interests or rights of other members of the public.

The judiciary, as the guardian of the rights of the citizens, has that constitutional power of reviewing laws that have been passed and to see that they are consistent with the constitution and they are consistent with public interest.

How did you feel about the President’s take concerning defamation, where he disqualified the Head of State as a beneficiary of protection against defamation, against the determination by a bench you led?

As a bench, we thought it was the right thing to do. First of all, the law that protected public officials (against defamation), was too vague and too broad, covering many officials, not telling us who is included and not included.

And so, we thought it was not justified to exempt so many people from being talked about especially in public functions and there was a lot of comparative laws and jurisprudence on these issues showing that on a balance we should be protecting more the right to receive information and the right to give information, especially as far as public officials are concerned because they deal with matters that affect the public, the public should be able to criticize them without fear of criminal sanctions.

At the same time, we felt as a bench that the position of Head of State, anywhere, should have a special place, that not anybody should come out and start insulting or disparaging the Head of State. The Head of State is the fountain of honour representing all people.

And therefore if you keep disparaging him or her, it doesn’t give the general public a good impression.

So, having looked at countries like The Netherlands, France and many others which protect the Head of State from that kind of insults and disparaging statements, we thought that it was right that he be treated in a special way, given special respect because of his given position in society.

We may have been wrong. At least, at the same time our President is a liberal President who likes to promote freedom of speech and he interacts very often with the press freely. So, from his own point of view, he felt the Head of State does not need that special treatment.

How is the Chief of Justice elected or appointed in Rwanda?

The Chief Justice is appointed by the President, after consultation with the High Council of the Judiciary and the cabinet and after approval by the senate. It is his choice.

After consulting various people, he will make a nomination, send it to the High Council of the Judiciary for comments, and also seek the advice of his cabinet, and if all is positive, the name is forwarded to the Senate for approval.

The senate has an interview with the nominee, and once they approve, then the President will effect the appointment.

They have to be lawyers of considerable experience.

The law says at least you must have at least experience of ten years in a law-related field to be a judge in the Supreme Court. You could be a judge, lawyer in practice, professor of law or something similar to that. What is important is you have experience in matters of the law.

After leaving office, what is Prof. Rugege going to do?

Prof. Rugege intends to rest. I have no immediate plans, I have already reached retirement age, so I am entitled to retire peacefully.

I can’t go back to the bench and I think I have been working hard, so I need time to rest and then maybe I can reflect on how to keep myself busy in future, including playing with my grandchildren and all that.

This interview was transcribed by Glory Iribagiza.