Ethiopia has been making various reforms that may finally lead it towards genuine democratization. Part of the reform measures has been the court reform effort within the macro legal reform program. Ethiopia’s court system has been hassled by the drastic upheavals in the political system over more than half a century. Although the country successfully implanted modern codes of law in the 1960s, establishing a court system that can accommodate the modern laws have been and is still the challenge. Accordingly, the country’s modern civil law, penal law, and commercial law are ahead of the level where the court system needs to be to understand them, let alone apply them.Post 1991 Ethiopia has witnessed tremendous changes in almost every aspect of political, economic and social life, including the changes in the legal system. The establishment of a regional state court system with cassation bench and federal court, as well as the change in the court language without any translation of the basic Amharic written codes in a political environment in which Amharic has been undermined, and massive recruitment of judges and judicial staff after short term legal training and political indoctrination was the basic legal task in the immediate years after EPRDF took power.
Such measures resulted in a gradual fusion between the judiciary and the executive bodies. The court became the best instrument to execute the political interests of the executive and the legislative bodies. Those who tried to genuinely execute the role of the court were dismissed from their judicial positions, and those who compromised their role managed to keep their jobs. Such an undermined role of the court and the part played by the judicial officials in that, finally contributed to mounting public grievances and desperation about the political system. Therefore it became obvious that the court needed reform.
Recently, members of the court reform committee were disclosed. But there is no clarity on how transparently it is done. The bench mark for the selection is not yet clear, either to the public or to the legal community. The professional associations were not given the chance to recommend and give opinions on the selection process or the nominees.
Various studies indicate that the court has critical problems related to independence, competence and integrity of some judges, as well as complex administrative issues and the like. Most of the studies on court reform were shelved without pragmatic political commitment to apply them. Therefore we can say that the courts still suffer under their previous problems. Despite their issues, some former judicial officials advocated for marvelous court reform achievements during their terms. It became clear, however, that it was mere propaganda, rather than real reform. Some of the former officials who were blamed for the problem of the courts are included on the reform committee. The basic criterion for selection should have been new minds with new perspectives on reform. In addition, a court is a dynamic institution and efficiently addressing its problems needs vibrant and committed lawyers very close to the litigation practice, as the role of the court is finally manifested by adjudication quality in terms of output and expediency. Those distant from the litigation can’t easily discern the basic problems courts are experiencing. Institutional studies on courts should be an area of interest for academicians, researchers, lawyers, political scientists and public administration professionals.
As the experience of other countries shows, the multi disciplinary nature of such studies has given the courts various advantages versus the traditional perception that court issues are always the professional domain of lawyers. Therefore, engaging such academicians and researchers can have a lot of advantages. As a continuous improvement plan, the supreme court should commission doctoral and masters research theses on specific areas that need research based solutions vis-a-vis the other problems that can be identified by its research department .
An annual judicial conference can also be the other innovative method of engagement for the courts to take advantage of new thoughts, utilizing ideas from brainstorming sessions and research presentations. Research forums on the judiciary is an almost neglected exercise by all stakeholders. What used to exist was a political forum orchestrating the judicial politics and the presenters were the usual judicial officials. The annual Justice Day can be taken as the best example of this theatre. If having a lot of law schools in more than 20 universities, and regional supreme courts with enough budgets, cannot put together a collaborative judicial research forum, it is not only disappointing but embarrassing. Establishing laws schools like high schools and gracing supreme courts with fancy buildings is nothing unless something serious can be done to address the problem of the judiciary with a research based approach.
8th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2019 • No. 70