Change of panel on Opuni case worrying — LINSOD

The decision by the Chief Justice, Justice Gertrude Torkornoo, to reconstitute the Supreme Court panel to hear an appeal by Dr Stephen Kwabena Opuni has been criticised by Lawyers in Search of Democracy (LINSOD), an umbrella of some lawyers. 

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In a statement, LINSOD said the change in the panel was of grave concern which could erode public confidence in the judiciary and lead to perception of bias on the part of the third arm of government.

“While the court in all sincerity may not be pursuing a course in the interest of the regime in power, it is imperative to ensure that the general public does not have a different perception as a result of the conduct and decisions of the courts, especially in political matters that are brought by the government against citizens of different political affiliations than the party in power.

“Unfortunately, it appears this is the situation presently, and our efforts through this statement and more are to turn the tides and neutralise this dangerous perception,” the statement said.

Background

The appeal at the apex court by Dr Opuni, a former Chief Executive of the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), is against a decision by the Court of Appeal in July 2023 to overturn a ruling by the trial High Court to start his trial afresh.

Dr Opuni and businessman, Seidu Agongo, were charged in March 2018, for allegedly causing a financial loss of more than GH¢271 million to the state in a series of fertiliser deals during his tenure at COCOBOD.

The accused persons have pleaded not guilty to all the 24 charges. After five years of trial, the presiding judge, Justice Clemence Honyenuga, a Justice of the Supreme Court, with additional responsibility as a High Court judge, retired in March 2023.

The Chief Justice then appointed a new judge, Justice Kwasi Anokye Gyimah, to preside over the case. With the new development, the prosecution filed an application, urging the High Court to adopt the previous proceedings of the case before Justice Honyenuga, which had been ongoing for five years.

However, in a ruling on April 4, 2023, Justice Gyimah said the trial must start afresh because it would be unfair for him to adopt the proceedings of Justice Honyenuga, which had been “saddled” with numerous allegations.

That decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal following an appeal by the Attorney-General. Dr Opuni then appealed against the ruling of the Court of Appeal at the Supreme Court.

On May 8, 2024, when the case was called, the original five-member panel had been reconstituted, with the Chief Justice presiding. Lead counsel for Dr Opuni raised an objection to the panel but it was overruled by the court.

The change of panel has attracted criticisms from many legal brains, including a fellow of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD), Prof. Stephen Kweku Asare. 

However, the Office of the Attorney-General, in a statement, defended the action of the Chief Justice in reconstituting the panel, describing it as the constitutional duty of the Chief Justice.

“In accordance with the Constitution and the Courts Act, 1993 (Act 459), the Chief Justice determines the composition of every court for the hearing of any matter. “The Chief Justice is a member of every court in the country, and has the power to request in writing a Justice of any of the Superior Courts of Judicature to sit on either the Court of Appeal or the High Court at any time,” the statement said.

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