October 4, 2006

Judiciary not always independent, claims report

Despite improvements in the country’s justice sector since the end of one-party rule in 1994, the independence of the courts is still not guaranteed, says a report by the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP), a Soros Foundation Network initiative. The report has listed examples of undue interference with the courts, in which members of the public administration had sought directly or indirectly to influence legal decisions.
The authors of the report found that judges were more vulnerable to outside influence at district level, where courts tend to face a shortage of funds and lack of physical infrastructure.

The report also listed a series of problems that have allegedly weakened the judiciary: courts battle with a critical shortage of staff, both in quantity and quality; salaries are low; physical conditions are often poor, particularly at district level, where facilities tend to be very basic and antiquated. "At the district level, many courts share office space with other state institutions, leading to perceptions among citizens that the independence of the courts is compromised," the researchers found, and suggested increased government spending to remedy the situation.

Availability of legislation and reference sources, such as legal libraries and archives, was also a major problem. "The majority of courts at the district level do not have copies of key legislative acts; when these are available, they tend to be judges' personal copies that they take with them when they retire or move to another court."

The report also pointed out that Mozambique has a relatively good record of ratifying international and regional human rights instruments, but has failed to comply with reporting obligations, not only to the United Nations treaty monitoring bodies, also the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. The researchers also found that the legal system contained anomalies and did not comply with international best practice: for instance, the Criminal Procedure Code allows a suspect to be held for up to six months without being formally charged, despite the existence of provisions stipulating that suspects charged with minor offences be judged within a maximum of five days after being detained.
The recent establishment of an ad hoc inter-ministerial committee on human rights, responsible for Mozambique's reporting requirements, might help improve the situation, the report concludes.

The report also cites Supreme Court judge Luis Mondlane, who describes the judicial records and archives system as "very traditional, manual, archaic and bureaucratic. It is not easy for an interested party to find out what stage his case has reached". The Supreme Court wanted urgent measures to deal with this situation. "The problem is so serious that it's difficult to know where to start", said Mondlane, "in the district courts, or here in the Supreme Court". Computerisation would be desirable - but of the 19 district courts visited by the researchers only one (in Chokwe) had a computer. (Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique, Maputo)

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