JUDGES of Uganda’s constitutional court have come to the rescue of two judicial colleagues, finding that the statutory five-year limited term of office of the industrial court bench undermined judicial independence and was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.
The constitutional court was considering the petition of the industrial court’s two members: its chief judge, Asapah Ntengye, and a second industrial court judge, Linda Mugisha. Both were appointed to the court after the Judicial Service Commission invited them for interviews in 2014. However, their official appointment letter indicated that in terms of the labour laws, they were appointed for a period of five years only.
The two industrial court judges found this unacceptable, and tried to clarify and regularize their appointment conditions. They said their appointments had to be governed by the constitution – that is, they should have permanent and pensionable appointments as with all other judges, rather than a short, limited term in office as provided by the labour laws.
They brought their constitutional petition after correspondence with other officials including the principal judge (who heads the high court and assists the chief justice), and the permanent secretary of the ministry of public service, all trying to resolve the dispute.
A major question was whether, if they hold office for just five years, they might in fact not be “real” judges of the courts of judicature.
Counsel for the judges made the point in argument that Uganda’s industrial court was a creature of statute, and the constitution did not give parliament the power to restrict the term of office of judicial officers. If the constitutional court were to dismiss the petition, it would open the way for parliament to “enact laws creating courts with different terms of service” from that prescribed under the constitution. And that in turn would “undermine the independence of the judiciary”.