Justice Gertrude Sackey Torkornoo —  Chief Justice
Justice Gertrude Sackey Torkornoo — Chief Justice
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Lawyers split over courts shift system

The Judicial Service is set to begin implementing a shift system which will allow some courts to sit in the evening as part of efforts to reduce the backlog of cases.

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Dubbed the Court Shift System (CSS), the innovation, introduced by the Chief Justice, Justice Gertrude Sackey Torkornoo, will allow the selected courts to operate morning and afternoon sessions, with the morning session starting from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and afternoon session from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The CSS is scheduled to start from March 25 this year.

Four lawyers have, however, expressed divergent views on the Court Shift System.

The new system, intended to be piloted at specific courts from next Monday, received both praise and criticism from the prominent court users in separate interviews with the Daily Graphic, with some calling for the implementation of other options to deal with the backlog of cases.

The courts selected for the CSS are the two High Courts at Adentan, the Amasaman High Court 1, the Circuit Court at Weija, the District Court at La, the District Court at Teshie, the two District Courts at Madina and the Nsawam High Court.

Rationale

A circular to all courts, signed by the Judicial Secretary, Justice Cyra Pamela Addo, and dated March 14, 2024, said the piloting of the court shift system was targeted at courts that had more than 600 cases pending.

The rationale, the circular said, was to reduce the backlog of cases to improve access to justice for people.

“The rationale for the Court Shift System stems from the fact that findings from a physical count of dockets undertaken in all courts nationwide demonstrated that a number of identified courts have huge caseloads, with some in excess of 600 pending cases.

“It is envisaged that the Court Shift System, when implemented, will reduce the backlog of cases in the specified courts, improve accessibility to justice for citizens by offering flexible court hours that accommodate diverse schedules, and enhance the overall effectiveness of the judicial system,” the circular said.

According to the circular, the CSS would be implemented by optimising the existing resources of the courts.

Backlog of cases

During an interaction with the media after the opening of a new Circuit Court at Atebubu in the Bono East Region in December last year, the Chief Justice hinted the implementation of the CSS on a pilot basis.

Justice Torkornoo lauded the government for constructing more than 100 new courts, which she said would increase access to justice.

She, however, said some courts had less case backlog compared to others which were inundated with as many as 1,000 cases.

Such a situation, she said, meant there was enormous pressure on such courts, making it difficult for them to deal with such cases expeditiously.

Lawyers’ views

But Senior Partner at Bentsi-Echill, Letsa and Ankomah, Ace Ankomah; journalist and Managing Partner at A-Partners @Law, Samson Lardy Anyenini; Managing Partner at WTS Nobisfields and Law lecturer at the University of Professional Studies, Accra (UPSA), Theophilus Tawiah; and Managing Partner at A-List Attorneys, Jerry John Asiedu, have expressed different views on the initiative.

Tight schedules

While lauding the initiative as revolutionary, Mr Ankomah said the initiative failed to take into consideration the impact on lawyers, who were one of the main actors in the justice delivery system.

He said hearing cases at night would add to the extreme tight schedules of lawyers.

“The lawyers’ work is not limited to the courtroom.

Often, we drive long distances to get to court by 9 a.m.

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“Then you arrive in the courtroom half tired already.

Then we may be on our feet for hours, arguing or simply sitting and waiting for our cases to be called, and juggling two or more cases in other courts. 

When we get back to the chambers, we have to work to clear files for the day, prepare and send client updates, do research and catch up on other drafting work, plan and prepare for the next day’s cases, conduct client interviews, work on other matters and do other non-dispute work.

“These are well-nigh impossible to achieve if we are to be in court in some days for up to 6 p.m.

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 And we are only human, and there is only so much work that we can do,” he said.

Mr Ankomah called for more consultations on the shift system for its smooth implementation.

“There is certainly the need for more consultation and working together not just with the leadership of the Bar, but with the rank and file on how best to make this work or exploring other ways of clearing the backlog,” he added.

More needed to be done

Mr Anyenini welcomed the initiative but said it should be improved so that it does not become business as usual as pertains in some courts.

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“What must not happen to this court shift system introduced in these particular courts loaded with cases is the needless adjournments.

I will, as it does, hurt for one to sacrifice their precious chamber work hours to drive all the way to the court only to be told it is not sitting, and to burn fuel in the crazy evening gridlock,” he said.

Apart from the CSS, counsel said more should be done to improve justice delivery in the country.

For instance, he said, rules should be introduced to provide specific timelines for the dispensation of cases just as it is done with presidential election petition, and for such timelines to be made part of judges’ key performance indicators.

“I have conducted a trial in a land matter within six months, and a parliamentary election case trial within two weeks.

 That can be the default turnaround time.

The issue is that it took individual judge initiative to get judgment within six months and two weeks in those cases.”

Mr Anyenini also called for virtual courts sittings to be made part of the court system.

“It is the bigger picture of efficiency that I am concerned about.

 I should be able to do my simple motions and simple probate matters virtually or on phone-call with a judge, and also expect that proceedings, orders, judgments will be speedily available to me,” he said.

Positive initiative

For Mr Tawiah, the CSS was a positive and progressive initiative which should be expanded to other courts.

He was, however, of the view that in order to sustain it and make it part of the court system, there was the need for the Judicial Service to employ more judges or allow part-time judges to adjudicate on cases.

“The workload will always be there.

As the economy expands, there will be many cases for judges to deal with and there will be a lot of pressure on them. 

We may, therefore, have to consider the option of part-time judges,” he said.

He said another way the Judicial Service could reduce the backlog of cases was to improve its e-justice initiative and automate more courts to enable them to hear certain cases online.

“Certain courts should be automated so that they only hear online application.

 One court that could easily do that is the Probate and Administration Court.

 With the right IT infrastructure and system, this can be done.

This will ease the pressure on the courts,” he added.

Safety

For his part, Mr Asiedu said the CSS was a good one, but it should be implemented in a manner that will not bring untold hardship to litigants, lawyers and court staff.

He, therefore, called for measures that would ensure the safety of stakeholders in the justice delivery system when cases were heard at night.

“The shift system calls for the need to ensure tighter safety around the courts and also ensure effective lighting systems if the courts, lawyers and litigants are going to be on court premises till 6:30 p.m.

“Dumsor, for instance, at the courts in the evenings without alternative power arrangements will be problematic,” he added.

Writer’s email: [email protected]

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