Some say that justice delayed is justice denied, but few would argue that it is better served cold than not at all. Just ask the citizens of Western Lakes, where a UN-supported mobile court is currently tackling a substantial backlog of criminal cases.
“I have waited for ten months now. Finally, justice has prevailed,” said Elizabeth (second name withheld) after a case of theft which had been filed against her by her former boss was dismissed without charges.
Disruptions caused by the effects of South Sudan’s long-standing armed conflict have all but paralyzed the judicial system in the country. In a bid to overcome this challenge, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), together with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) Rule of Law and Human Rights teams and the Ministry of Justice have set up a mobile court which is touring the country.
Justice is welcomed by all and sundry, including James, who has had to wait for three years to have his case of alleged murder tried.
“I have been locked up for a long time. I am happy that the case has been reduced to manslaughter and that blood compensation was the court’s preferred verdict,” said James as he gently scratched his head, pondering how and where to get hold of the 31 heads of cattle he will have to pay for his deeds.
The mobile court in Western Lakes which, headed by high court judge Mathiang Kuach and magistrate Faskulina Anyang, is scheduled to last for one month and is nearing its completion. In fact, due to logistical challenges the court is engaged in a race against time.
“We are handling cases of murder, rape, robbery and theft. So far, we have dealt with six cases of murder,” said judge Mathiang. “Some of the complainants live very far away. When you are ready to summon them, fighting erupts somewhere, sometimes preventing them from reaching our court in Rumbek town. Some are yet to reach us, and we are running out of time,” the concerned judge added.
This time, the mobile court is expected to expedite 88 cases, 48 of which are under the jurisdiction of the high court and the rest will be tried at the magistrate level.
While the efforts of the visiting judiciary may clear the backlog of cases deemed serious, especially those involving persons in detention, the shortages of judges and magistrates could lead to the emergence of a new batch of cases put on hold. Each of the three areas that make up Greater Lakes (Eastern Lakes, Western Lakes and Gok) has only one high court judge and no magistrate.
“By mobilizing judges and other justice officials to fill the gaps in the chain of justice, national authorities can help ensure broader access to justice,” said James Arguin, Director of the peacekeeping mission’s Rule of Law section.
The plethora of challenges faced by South Sudan’s judicial system includes language barriers caused by a multitude of local dialects and a lack of resources and capacity among justice sector institutions from police to prosecutors and courts. Rumbek is fortunate to have several experienced legal advocates who can assist those being accused of crimes once cases are ready to be heard.
“We know access to justice is still a big challenge in this country, but we shall keep on finding creative ways of addressing each problem until we win. We know that this is not an isolated event but rather a process,” said Nyinypiu Madit, a human rights officer serving with UNMISS.
Mobile courts may be helpful, but they are not, according to Mr. Arguin, a sustainable means of moving forward.
“They are a temporary, not a permanent solution to filling gaps in the national justice system.”