Open letter to Chief Justice
Once again, I send you greetings and hope this latest issue of my epistles finds you in good health.
Chief Justice, we have traversed in these letters, in my opinion, the essential areas which need scrutiny but I by no means lay claim to have exhausted every aspect of our criminal justice system in need of reform.
Firstly, I wish to address ‘contempt’, an area which is gradually drowning the otherwise calm judicial waters.
Contempt of court, as you are abundantly aware, entails an act of disrespect or disobedience or wanton interference with the orderly process of the court.
Examples include disobeying an express court order, disrupting ongoing court proceedings, interfering with evidence gathering, including witness or jury ‘nobbling’, etc.
There is an area of contempt that is abused ‘willy nilly’ in Ghana with repercussions for the administration of justice: public commentary in the media on ongoing cases.
Journalists, politicians and the general public are all guilty as charged.
However, when lawyers get in on the act then the problem assumes humongous dimensions.
This bad practice has been palpable in some recent high-profile cases, like the criminal case brought by the state against the Assin North MP, Gyakye Quayson.
It is a scandal and an affront to the court that this level of commentary is spewed on the airwaves and in print, by people proffering their unsolicited and, in most cases, highly prejudiced version of the case.
Many of these people would have found themselves in jail had they been doing this in most advanced legal jurisdictions.
Such behaviour is frowned upon by the law because it prejudices the outcome of ongoing cases, especially those which are tried by jury.
I remember the diverse views expressed in the media in one of the high-profile cases I am involved with – the infamous Denkyira Obuasi lynching of Major Mahama.
The radio and newspaper commentaries were so loud that I could have got the case thrown out of court had it been in England, on the simple ground of trial by media.
My plea to you is to ensure that the courts clamp down heavily on all these bogus interpretations of the law in the media and also use their powers to rid the system of this canker.
Given that this is going to be the last of my reform-oriented letters to you, I believe it germane to also address some housekeeping issues.
The first is the way in which lawyers addresses judges in court.
There is an accepted, well-established and defined way by which counsel addresses judges in the common law tradition.
This has evolved over the years in a neat and hierarchical way, respecting and demarcating the various positions of judges within the system which is commensurate to their level within the pantheon of adjudication.
Only the apex of judicial posts, like judges at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal are to be accorded the title of my Lord, my Lady, your Lordship, your Ladyship.
Other positions in the District/Magistrates courts should be addressed accordingly: Magistrate/District —Your Worship, while the Circuit Court — Your Honour.
I believe that strict adherence to these salutations does not only improve the quality of advocacy but helps to show the levels of hierarchy in the judicial system.
It is hoped that the terms in which judges are addressed do not suffer the same abuse, which the term ‘Honourable’ has suffered within political circles.
The term has been cheapened.
How are we to appreciate the seniority and experience of judges when a magistrate as well as a Supreme Court judge are all addressed as my Lord, my Lady?
Lastly, is the issue of court dress.
It would be most welcome if lawyers were not required to wear the wig and gown during civil trials.
The must be reserved for criminal trials as is currently practiced in England, the original home of legal costume.
Apart from demystifying the law, it would have practical advantages, particularly in courts where there is no air conditioning.
I implore you to consider some of these issues — Adieu!
The writer is a lawyer.