The legal system that existed in 1990 included customary, and in some cases Islamic, law in addition to statutory law. Statutory law was published in the government Gazette. The constitution provided for a High Court with a chief justice and as many other judges as parliament decided to create. It empowered the president to appoint High Court judges, although it allowed him to choose only the chief justice without following the advice of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which was headed by the chief justice. The constitution restricted the choice of judges to those already presiding over courts of unlimited jurisdiction or to lawyers who had practiced for five years before such courts. The High Court heard appeals from magistrates' courts located in each district. In addition, the High Court acted as the court of first instance in questions involving elections to or vacancies in parliament. The 1967 constitution also declared that decisions of the High Court could be appealed to the Court of Appeal for Eastern Africa (CAEA), or to a new court of appeal established by parliament.
With the collapse of the East African Community (EAC) in 1977, the Ugandan government withdrew from the CAEA and created a national Court of Appeal. In 1980 the government made the chief justice the head of the High Court only and appointed a separate president of the Court of Appeal. These changes led to problems in the administration of justice during the next several years. The problems stemmed primarily from the anomalous position of a chief justice constitutionally restricted to be head of an inferior court. To eliminate these problems, the NRM government introduced the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 1987, and the Judicature Act (Amendment) Bill, 1987, which the NRC passed in August 1987. The name of the Court of Appeal was changed to the Supreme Court of Uganda. The chief justice became its head and the chief administrator of the judiciary. Two new positions were created, a deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court and a principal judge, who became head of the High Court. Appeals from any decision of the High Court were to be referred to the Supreme Court. To be appointed judge of the Supreme Court, a person must have qualified and served as judge of the High Court for at least seven years. Power to appoint the justices and chief justice of the Supreme Court was placed in the hands of the president. Following the precedent of the 1967 Constitution, the president had to accept the advice of the JSC except in the appointment of the chief justice. The deputy chief justice was to be appointed from among the principal judge and justices of the Supreme Court.
In 1988 the NRM government substantially changed grass-roots adjudication by giving judicial powers over civil disputes, which up until then had been exercised by chiefs, to elected resistance committees in each village, parish, and subcounty. In the past, despite their pretense of neutrality, chiefs had often discriminated against opponents of the ruling party or military government. The new local court system responded to the first point in the Ten-Point Program by placing petty and customary conflicts in the hands of democratically chosen officials. The new system also received broad popular support, according to a commission of inquiry into local government.
Each elected resistance committee was empowered to constitute itself as a court headed by the chair of the committee. If some of the committee members were absent, other members of the resistance council that had elected the committee could be coopted . Cases involving contracts, debts, or assault and battery could be heard only if they involved less than USh5,000, a relatively small sum. However, other civil disputes concerning conversion or damage to property or trespassing, and customary disputes involving land held by customary tenure, the marital status of women, the paternity of children, customary heirs, impregnation of or elopement with a female under age eighteen, and customary bail procedures could be heard regardless of amount. The orders that these courts had the power to make ranged from apology and reconciliation to compensation or attachment and sale. Appeals went to the next higher resistance committee and eventually to the High Court.
One of the most important stated objectives of the NRM government was to restore the rule of law. Toward that end, three commissions were either revived or created. The Commission for Law Reform, which had been established in the Ministry of Justice during the Amin government but had been ineffective for lack of financial resources and because of instability, was given a fresh start with the appointment of Justice Matthew Opu of the High Court as commissioner in 1986. The Commission for Law Revision, which had the task of clearing the laws of statutes that had been repealed or had become obsolete and of adding consequential amendments, was revived. The Commission of Inquiry into the Violation of Human Rights was created in 1986 to establish the human rights record from independence up to the take-over by the NRM government. A High Court justice, Arthur Oder, and five other commissioners began public hearings on human rights violations in December 1986.
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