People and Power: Justice Ogoola on delivering justice fairly and impartially

As a court judge one needs to be very careful while on the bench since it matters what messages are sent out to the people in court.  This statement from a former Principal judge of the High Court of Uganda, Justice James Ogoola is one of the many lessons majority of us outside of the Justice and Law profession need to know about the characters who wear the scarlet robes and bench wigs!

He said, “… if you keep smiling all the time, they may think oh wow, he’s not serious. If you’re too serious all the time, they may think he’s biased against somebody. If you smile a lot at one counsel and not the other that could also be misinterpreted so one has got to watch one's body language and there’s no pretence really. You try to keep a balance”. 

Justice James Ogoola the famous desk lawyer who’d never practiced nor stood before a judge in his life to argue a case found himself in position of an appointed judge, “…I never went to court ever! The first and only time I went to court was to become a judge! And I remember vividly not even knowing the courtseys, the protocols of walking into that courtroom were because I had never seen any”.

Ogoola then had to consult from a former classmate who was a judge in Dar es Salaam. He wrote down for him all the protocols to follow upon his first step into the courtroom.

 “…you get to the gate, they’ll knock the big door, they’ll walk you in, you’ll stand by the chair, they’ll pull the chair for you, you’ll sit down, you’ll bow to the people…we went through all that manual because I’d never been to court before…”the former judge revealed.

It is therefore no surprise when he intimates that his appointment was, “a no reward for excellent service but probably simply a calling from those who make people what they are and that’s the Almighty up there”. 

Justice James Ogoola's fresh start into this career placed him as a state attorney in the Attorney General’s Chambers in legislation as a Senior draftsman of Uganda’s laws during the Iddi Amin era in the 1970s. A former Chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission, Justice of the COMESA Court of justice and chairperson of Uganda’s Elder's forum; a flashback into his youth born during the colonial era, Ogoola reminisces that lawyers were an atemer to the colonial system because they would spill the beans and were only a handful in Uganda. 

A young lad who had never heard of lawyers persay what they even do, Ogoola recalls, “we were rural people brought up in a rural environment and most accomplishments we would see were the rural ones; a successful farmer herding their cattle…there was never one time that I said, I was going to be a judge or a lawyer or any of that kind of a thing, that came very later on in life.

The dawn of the 1962 independence was the attribute to which a young James Ogoola only in high school at the time was awakened by the oppression that uprooted his desire to stand against, “ …I started to see the African lawyers in courts and I started to say, wow I could be that..”.

An active member of the debating club while at Nabumali High School and King's College Budo; Ogoola recalls that his undeniable drive to join politics at the time as a student of Law at the University of Dar-es-Salaam was tempting since it was the trend with all the young people that were leading Uganda then like Milton Obote, John Kakonge but he only got close when he became President of the Students Association. 

Recruited right from University into the Attorney General’s Chambers as a desk lawyer in legislative drafting, Ogoola gravitated in that line given his flair for writing until he got to the bench; nowonder it is his writing that earned him the title of Author and Poet, “ in lower secondary school, I was very good at English, not the grammar part of it but composition writing. It came so naturally and I became a quite a darling of my principal who was teaching us writing…he would always say when the exams came back…take my piece, read it to everybody and say, look this is the way to do it”. 

Knowledge of a flair to a man who was already pursuing law was golden to his heart until his writing reappeared. 

He recalls the events of the November 2005 siege of the High Court by Black Mambas when members of the opposition were rearrested.

“…when the temple of justice was attacked, invaded something in me boiled up and I said, we can’t let this be. We did things corporately as the judiciary, we even downed our tools and even went to see the President and put up a big protest,” he narrated, “but then as an individual the one who’d been in court that day granting bail to the gentleman who was then rearrested on the court premises. I felt the responsibility to do something and very quickly it came with pen and paper and before I knew it, we’d; the rape of the temple of justice”. 

Son of the Samia heritage, the first African to serve as counsel at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1974-1997; Justice James Ogoola had his plate full with many a role within Uganda’s law and Justice system but his integrity on the bench handling numerous cases also served him another title of Canon by the Anglican Church of Uganda in 2016. 

A man retired from the bench is a man not tired but for Justice Ogoola, “I don’t miss it, I have been released from prison…but the work of a judge lives even after the grave, will be accountable some day somewhere where you don’t want to be accountable." 


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