HER Ladyship Gertrude Araba Esaaba Sackey Torkornoo took office as the 15th, chief justice of Ghana on 12 June 2023. She is the third woman to occupy the position, which is the fourth highest in the country after the president, vice-president and speaker of parliament. Ghana’s judiciary is made up of the supreme court, the court of appeal, the high court and the magistrate (district) court. The chief justice is at the top of the judicial hierarchy and serves as administrator and supervisor.
The supreme court has the power, as the highest court, to interpret Ghana’s constitution and has final authority in determining what the law is. It can determine whether any acts of parliament or the president violate the Constitution.
Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua, associate professor of public international law at the School of Law, University of Ghana, sets out the biggest challenges facing Justice Torkornoo.
What should be the new chief justice’s immediate areas of concern?
It is hoped that the chief justice will help bring justice closer to poor Ghanaians, who are the majority, especially those living in rural and peri-urban areas.
The Alternative Dispute Resolution project started by Georgina Woode, a former chief justice, should be sped up and spread across the entire country. This project aims to resolve disputes outside the law courts. It is also cheaper and faster than a traditional court process.
It is also suggested that the chief justice consider setting up small claims courts across the country to resolve disputes through informal procedures. This will improve access to justice.
Another issue that will require the chief justice’s urgent attention is the reform of legal education in Ghana. There is a backlog of about 3,000 students awaiting admission to enter the Ghana School of Law to obtain their professional degrees. The reason for the backlog is that the school is the sole avenue for professional certification.
One suggestion has been that the school be broken up to enable more student admissions. This would improve the lawyer-population ratio, which is still low. Currently, the ratio stands at one lawyer to 3,000 citizens. An acceptable ratio would be 1:300.
Finally, as rightly noted by the new chief justice during her vetting, digitisation of the court process and expansion of infrastructure for the judiciary, especially in rural communities, should be taken seriously.
The new chief justice has been at the forefront in the push for digitisation, including working with Ghana Case Tracking System. The system is aimed at improving the ability to track criminal cases from their introduction into the system to prosecution in court, and to improve information sharing and coordination among Ghana’s law enforcement and judicial authorities.
What are the big issues facing the judiciary?
The new chief justice comes to power at a time when Ghana’s judiciary is confronted by a number of concerns and challenges. Among these are corruption, inefficiency and bottlenecks.
Corruption: A survey conducted by the independent research network Afrobarometer in 2020 showed that the perception that, at least, some judges and magistrates are corrupt has been consistently high. More than 85% of Ghanaians said “some” judges and magistrates were corrupt, and 40% said this about “most” or “all” court officials.
Inefficiency: One area of inefficiency is tardiness in the delivery of justice in time-sensitive cases. This has in turn raised concerns about the abuse of executive power. Recent judgments by the supreme court reflect this reality. In Ghana CDD & 8 Others v Attorney-General, the plaintiffs challenged the decision of the president to order the then auditor-general to proceed on his accumulated leave and retirement. The action, filed in November 2020, called for the reinstatement of the dismissed auditor-general and asked the court to declare his dismissal and the subsequent appointment of an acting auditor-general unconstitutional.
It took the supreme court over two years to deliver a unanimous decision declaring the act of the president unconstitutional. By then it was too late to return the dismissed auditor-general to office, though the decision sets a good precedent to guide the future conduct of the executive.
Bottlenecks: The biggest concern, as raised in the Afrobarometer survey, is access to justice for poor Ghanaians who make up most of the population.
Respondents said engaging with the justice system was too expensive. As reported by the dean of the Ghana School of Law, Ghanaians are charged a Ghc 20,000 (USD$4,407) filing fee to make a bona fide claim exceeding Ghc 100,000,000 and a Ghc 1,500.00 (USD$330) filing fee to recover one million cedis in an insurance claim. Access to justice is restricted by such high fees.
Most judges and magistrates have unimpeachable records on the bench. Thus, while not all that has been said about the judiciary may be true, the perceptions exist and perceptions feed into reality. No public relations exercise or rebranding can change this perception of the people about the judiciary. It should reflect in the life of the judiciary and how judges and judicial staff conduct themselves on the bench and outside the courtroom.
The chief justice needs to be bold, assertive and uncompromising in her work to restore the image of the judiciary.