Professionalism in the Rwandan courts: A TI-Rw second analysis confirmed positive trends

In 2013, Transparency International Rwanda started a project to monitor the professionalism and accountability of courts. The aim was to contribute to strengthening the rule of law in Rwanda by achieving a more professional, effective and accountable justice system.

The analysis was carried out into two phases. The first analysis which was carried out in 2013 and 2014 showed that the overall satisfaction of respondents with the courts and judges professionalism was estimated at 79%. That includes the required qualification of judges which was estimated at 100%, their perceived independence (68.8%), their perceived Integrity (87.8% ) and the courts effectiveness in fulfilling their responsibilities  was estimated at 59.5%.

This year’s edition was built on the findings from previous year, and where applicable, compared the progress made. During this analysis, two approaches were used to collect data for analysis. Those are the situational analysis - where data were collected through interviews with judges, registrars, court clients (litigants) and detainees, as well as questionnaire filled by citizens seeking services from the courts – and the observation  which focused on issues such as mechanisms to address the long overdue backlogs of cases, the likely presence of corruption within the institutions, the respect of the procedures and the quality of the judgment.

Courts clients views collected from the Suggestion boxes

On the positive side, the findings based on the sample data suggest that perceptions about the satisfaction with decisions of courts have slightly improved. It is especially appreciated that the proportion of hearings delayed by 6 months and more has been reduced. The qualification of judges and their professionalism as well as sanctioning of judicial misconduct might be behind the factors leading to higher trust and satisfaction with the judiciary system, disregarding different court instances. The positive impact of the implementation of judicial reforms, partly influenced by the first edition of this monitoring, can be felt and is an encouragement also for this year’s monitoring.

However, it is fair to admit that some challenges still persist. Despite improvements in reducing the backlog of court hearings and shortening the time till execution of a judgment is delivered, still over 20% of respondents claim waiting one year and longer to come to the first hearing since the complaint was lodged. The delays are caused mainly by the time between case submission and the date of court decision announcement and the time between case submission and date of first hearing. In the same vein, citizens put high court fees, perceived partiality of judges, lack of independence and corruption as main reasons of dissatisfaction.

Despite anti-corruption campaigns spearheaded by the police, Ministry of Justice, appeal judicial bodies and Transparency International, around one out of ten respondents has claimed to witness or participate in corruption while dealing with a court. Furthermore, the average amount spent on a bribe has been put at Rwf 642,989. Only 20% respondents claiming to witness corruption have been reported to the police, president of the court or some other institution. Despite firm political will and mechanisms in place, the research suggests that too many cases of corruption stay unreported. Provided that most respondents have a high trust in police and other institutions of law and order, these findings call for much more effort to expose corruption in the judiciary.

To sustain the positive trend and address highlighted challenges, this study puts forward a number of recommendations for further discussion and necessary policy action in very specific areas. The demand for accountability in the judiciary must be mobilized amongst the public. Presidents of Courts at all instances, Rwanda National Police, Civil Society Organisations, media, etc. have a role to play in publishing positive practices such as examples of exposing corruption, speedy handling of court hearings, impartiality of judges and so on. Suggestion boxes, toll-free hotlines and awareness building amongst the public about the right to appeal and complain are only some examples of tools to be systematically promoted. The functioning and impact of these tools must be regularly monitored at all judicial instances.

Prevention is important but consequences in cases where malpractices are proven must be duly followed. The Rwandan Judiciary proves committed to not tolerating any infringement of code of ethics. In this respect, during the past ten years, the High Council of Judiciary has imposed disciplinary sanctions, which vary from warning notice to dismissal. Over the past 10 years an average of 4 court personnel were dismissed per year in this regard.

This study reveals that the main reasons of dissatisfaction come with quality parameters of judgments such as perceived lack of impartiality, lack of compliance with court procedures or even laws. Even outright crimes such as corruption are an issue. It is evident, and recognized by public, that judges have been successful in addressing the backlog of court cases to great extent.

Equal access to justice for all must also be ensured. Economic cost of justice comes as the biggest challenge experienced by respondents, especially at the lowest court instance at the primary courts’ level. Almost 5 in 10 respondents (i.e. 48.9%) have raised this concern. The court fee seems to be a real burden to the people attending courts. The level of impact of that fee as perceived by respondents stands high at 75.4% cumulatively. Facilitation of free access to justice for poor and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms must be strengthened to minimize the risks that the poorest and most vulnerable segment of the population can face, especially to be excluded on the basis of lack of financial means.

Based on desk research, observations and individual interviews with judges and court registrars, the domains of customer care, mechanisms for service delivery feedback, compliance with legal procedures and practices during the hearing, compliance with legal deadlines, quality of judgment, and legality of provisional detention and time spent by suspects in detention centers are in focus of this report. Specifically, the study i) gathers evidence on strengths or weaknesses of courts and tribunals; ii) promotes a culture of accountability in the justice system and iii) formulates widely agreed policy solutions to tackle the weaknesses previously identified.

Customer care indicators have overall scored high. A lot of progress has been achieved to accommodate court employees and public in premises that are well equipped and representative. Indeed, according to this research, the majority of courts operate in relatively modern environment with well signposted, ventilated and functional court halls. Timetables are clearly displayed in most cases and schedules of court hearings are largely adhered to.

An area of improvement might be needed in the facilitation of the provision of service delivery feedback. Feedback from citizens to the courts is still relatively low. According to the data, only 22% of inspected suggestion boxes were in use. Similarly, only 35% of judges claimed using the input from suggestion boxes in their work. When examining the reasons behind the low usage of suggestion boxes, high satisfaction with court services and thus no need for feedback, lack of knowledge about the functioning of boxes, fear of using suggestion boxes and no confidence in courts’ staff in ensuring follow up have been suggested as reasons behind the low use.

These findings are consistent with other reasons behind the lack of use of other feedback mechanisms such as toll free hotlines, appeal mechanisms etc. (see Situational analysis). It is evident that promotion of feedback tools must be addressed though awareness building amongst the citizens but also through systems in place within the judiciary system. Actions and responses in this direction must go beyond the mere presence of tools such as suggestion boxes. Relevant authorities and CSOs shall rigorously examine the frequency of the usage of these tools by citizens and the utilization of feedback within the institutions concerned.

It is encouraging that according to this research the majority of judges in the monitored courts do follow prescribed legal procedures and practices during the hearing in courts. These observations show that above 80% of judges follow legal procedures. This marks a significant improvement to the past. The proportion of judges that provide qualified feedback to the objection expressed by both parties in line with the legal deadline stands at 94%. However, there are fewer judges who allow litigants and witnesses to check out the content of the documents before affixing their signatures. According to these observations only 73 % of them do so.

Concerning compliance with legal deadlines, the majority of cases observed meet the 6 months’ time limit of rendering the verdict since the date of case lodging. Many cases reach the verdict in less than a month, others less than 3 months. However, a number of cases were found with long delays, ranging from 1 to 4 months after the legal time limit.

In the same vein, the data reveals that many cases are taken to the judge after 2 months (60 days), some taking even more than five months (150 days). Few cases took even more than 10 months or one year. This also holds for the time between the case lodging and the first hearing.

In regards to the number of cases tried by a judge per month, around 83% of judges assessed stand above the average number of assigned quota. It also shows that the majority of judges have gone beyond the target, with 24% (i.e. 13 judges) who at least doubled the assigned quota. It is important to note to this aspect that Situational analysis suggests that quotas for cases to be handled per judge might negatively affect the quality of the processing.

In relation to backlogs, there is a steady progress being made but high number of backlogs is still common. For example, Muhoza Primary Court has 554 delayed cases, the High Court 496, Musanze Intermediate Court 410, Ndora Primary Court 315 counts 315 backlogs than other courts assessed.

Concerning the quality of judgments, overall, the large majority of cases received by appellate courts are eventually confirmed. For example, an average of 81% of cases lodged in appellate courts were neither overturned nor rectified. However, the study showed an average of 16% and 6% judgments that were overturned and rectified respectively. Intermediary courts that handle the highest volume of cases show also the highest proportion of quality problems with handling court cases.

As far as legality of arrest and detention is concerned, the data suggests that the legal time limits for the arrest by the police, provisional detention by the prosecutor and the decision on provisional detention by the judge are largely observed in practice. However, a few unlawful cases were still detected. The zero tolerance to unlawful detentions shall be strived for.

In conclusion, observations suggest that customer care and compliance with legal procedures make faster progress than other areas. Practices during the hearing, compliance with legal deadlines, quality of judgment and legality of provisional detention are concrete issue where partial gains in eliminating negative trends have been achieved. However, number of backlogs, breaches of steps in compliance with the legal procedures and breaching deadlines in delivering justice has still an adverse effect on the quality of judgments. Strategies towards further steps to eliminate isolated cases of unlawful detention, in particular excessive number of days spent in detention, shall be elaborated. Furthermore, this observation report confirms largely the trend shown in the Situational analysis. Despite two different sets of indicators, findings and, most importantly, recommendations shall be based on the synergies between the two reports.

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