Boycott of New Law Year a success, say lawyers as ULS attends

Boycott of New Law Year a success, say lawyers as ULS attends
Oundo during his inauguration and handover by his predecessor Phiona Wall

KAMPALA - A section of lawyers has described as a success the move to boycott the opening of the new law year by the Judiciary.

A group of lawyers earlier this week said they would not attend the opening of the New Law Year in Kampala, citing the interference into the Uganda Law Society (ULS) activities by the Judiciary.

But ULS, led by its president Bernard Oundo, attended the event at the Judiciary headquarters Kampala.

Speaking at the event, Oundo, who said he appreciated the concerns of his colleagues but defended his attendance as based on the court decision being temporary, called for independence of the Judiciary.

“There can be no meaningful people-centered approach to justice if justice seekers don't believe that courts can adjudicate causes impartially and without external pressure,” he said.

But Isaac Ssemakadde, one of the proponents of the boycott, said their call has been “resoundingly successful”.

“We salute the absolute majority of the 50-000 members of the Uganda Law Society who have heeded our call to stay at home and the media and the public who have reinforced our principled stand for independence of the Judiciary, as opposed to a performative gig in disgusting colonial robes and wigs,” Ssemakadde said.

The lawyers who said they could not be party to a meeting by people who gagged them also include Eron Kiiza, Frank Kanduho, George Musisi, Anthony Odur, and Peter Walubiri.

Others are Mohmed Mbabazi, Philip Karugaba, Sarah Kasande, Jude Byamukama, Daniel Walyemera, Peter Arinaitwe, Mugagga Mukuve and William Muhumuza.

On Oundo and his ULS team ignoring the clarion call, Kiiza said their message had hit home, supported by overwhelming numbers.

“We aren’t a choir to sing the same song…” he said of the lack of a unified position, “ours a resounding triumph.”

The fallout

On February 6, High Court judge Musa Ssekaana stopped a meeting called by the lawyers’ body to discuss what the Bar Association termed as an “attack on the independence of the Judiciary”.

It followed President Museveni’s directive to Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo to review court decisions following the attachment of Muslim properties over debts.

The boycott group said Judge Ssekaana’s seven-page ruling is “really a one-pager,” gagging a bundle of Article 29 rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression.

They said the ruling was based on the speculative basis that likely resolutions of the ULS meeting on a matter of public interest may be illegal.

“This marks a new low for our Judiciary and national Bar Association. It was previously inconceivable that the Bench could trample on the rights of the Bar in such capricious fashion,” they said.

Ssemakadde, a freestyler lawyer who is not tied down by formality, had no kind words for his colleagues who attended the function.

“We know that we belong to a diverse fraternity of lawyers at the bench and the bar, amongst whom there will always be some charlatans without a conscience, ready and willing to put on display for the highest bidder their want of fidelity or compunction,” he said.

“Today we get to put faces and names to the shameless lords, worship and learned friends who couldn't resist worshipping a golden calf at the Tower of Babel.”

According to Ssemakadde, as lawyers, they will continue to call for eternal vigilance as we defend the independence of the Judiciary, and all elements of the rule of law, “from those who seek to profit in the tyranny of rule by law.”

The group said the boycott also seeks to condemn all persons and authorities plotting to gag ULS members’ meetings, reminding them that censors do not win.

“Censors are always resoundingly defeated in the course of history. We are confident that this manifestly void injunction will also have a short-lived and disgraceful voyage to the dustbin of history,” they said.

Oundo said they were bound to respect the High Court decision.

“While we appreciate the concerns of those who suggest that we should boycott, we believe that the best alternative for us is to attend the opening of the new law year and speak to our challenges and also the ULS causes on independence of the Judiciary and rule of law in Uganda,” he said.

“As ULS, we respect court decisions and we shall defend the matter as we have done in other matters that have been filed by the ULS. The decision was made a preliminary order. The court has not decided on the merits.”

Oundo said his Executive has organised another forum where the matter will be discussed with the Judiciary.

“We have also in addition organised a bar-bench forum that will enable us to interact with the Judiciary and air out our grievances aimed at creating a harmonious and strengthened relationship between the bar and the bench,” he added.

Meanwhile, Oundo used the New Law Year to address the concerns related to Mr Museveni’s December 7, 2023 directive to the Chief Justice.

“While we agree that the President has and is within his power to disagree with a court decision, we appeal that for purposes of independence of the Judiciary, there shouldn't be any sort of directions from the Fountain of Honour, the President,” he said.

“These letters and interference erode public confidence in the Judiciary and therefore we call all actors, all arms of government to respect judicial independence.”

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