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Bizarre cases in courtrooms around the world

Saturday January 25 2020

judiciary

The public complain about the backlog of cases in the courts. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

SEKOU OWINO
By SEKOU OWINO
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This past week, the Chief Justice of Kenya presented to the country the State of the Judiciary Report for the year 2019.

This piece shall review some of the cases decided throughout the world last year in a mini state of the judiciary and justice across the world.

Among the issues of concern to the CJ is the constant public refrain that cases take too long to conclude. ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is too often cited by those who seek to lampoon judicial officers for delays.

The public comment about the backlog of cases in the courts reminded me of another case that attracts the opposite of the adage about the speed of justice.

If anyone would be concerned about the snail’s pace of conclusion of cases in our courts, they may wish to remember that bare speed is not the goal in court cases.

Last year, Judge Helen Black broke a record of sorts about swift justice by holding a single hearing and determining after only 13 minutes to take a child away from the custody of her 16-year-old mother.

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The judgment itself was also 360 words long. When this instance of swift injustice was challenged on appeal, the court of appeal had expressed dismay at the rough justice meted out with such speed.

VEXATIOUS CLAIMS

Lord Justice Baker said that the trial judge was no doubt aware of the need to ensure that the line between robustness and unfairness is not crossed as had been done in this case.

The appellate court ordered that the case be heard before another judge within a week of the judgment.

But backlogs are not the making of judges. Indeed, a greatly litigious society contributes to the backlog in the form of vexatious cases, which the courts then have to consider alongside cases of merit.

One such case was the case of a British Airways pilot, who was banned by a judge from having to sue his former wife again because of constant harassment through vexatious claims over a period of 20 years.

Another case was about a spat between two women in 2008 during a morning train ride.

Samantha Mead pulled a face at the smell of eggs being eaten by a fellow passenger in a train.

She was charged with the offence of intentionally causing harassment and fined at the Black friars Crown court and was fined in November, 2019.

LEWD REMARK

Cases such as this leave many wondering why such an inconsequential spat between two people should be entertained within an already strained judicial system.

The courts were not only rebuking judges on account of speed. The same court of appeal rebuked a judge in Bermuda for making a lewd remark during a murder trial.

The judge had said during the trial that the evidence in that case was making him sexually aroused.

The accused person appealed against his conviction on the ground that the trial judge’s inappropriate behaviour was prejudicial to his case.

On appeal, the court of appeal did not interfere with the decision to convict the accused but opined strongly that the lewd remarks by a judge from the bench were inimical to the dignity of court proceedings.

Another judge in upstate New York in the United States had to resign following a case of poor judgement outside the courtroom.

Justice Kyle Canning of Altona Town court resigned following a charge by the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct with conveying racial and political bias on his Facebook page.

CONVICT HUGGED

The judge posted an image of a hangman’s noose within a Facebook post citing President Trump’s slogan “Making America great again” alongside the words, “If we want to make America great again, then we will have to make evil people fear punishment”.

The judge resigned and gave an undertaking never to seek judicial office in the near future. But judges also made very sensible if surprising decisions in court.

Professional racing driver Oliver Webb would affirm this following conviction for exceeding the speed limit while driving a car in England.

Instead of a harsher punishment for this traffic offence, the court ordered the offending driver to attend a speed awareness course to learn safe driving.

But judges did not only deliver verdicts and sentences in courts last year. One of the cases in which a judicial officer’s conduct was overwhelmingly approved was not a court order.

After police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of the murder of a man she shot after entering his apartment and mistakenly thinking he was an intruder, the victim’s brother hugged the convict in court.

The judge joined this fest and also hugged the convict and wished her well.

HANGOVER AN ILLNESS

But the judicial hugs could not reach the heights of a court in Germany which ruled in September 2019 that since alcoholism is an illness, its aftermath hangover must be deemed as illness as well.

This came from a case in which a manufacturer of an anti-hangover drink was sued for making illegal health claims about the product.

In dismissing the suit, the court in Frankfurt said that even a small or temporary disruption of the normal state of the human body would be an illness.

But aside from judges, advocates in court also had their moments in cases last year. Of these the most memorable for me was the address by Aidan O’Neill who, while representing members of the British parliament who had challenged the action by Prime Minister Johnson in prorogation of parliament, said this to the supreme court judges: “I say to this court, don’t let this be your Dred Scot moment”.

This was in reference to the US Supreme court case of Dred Scot in which it held that black people were not entitled to rights of US citizenship.

SHOT DEAD

Referring more pointedly to the prime minister, he added that we got here the mother of parliaments being shut down “by the father of lies”.

Courts were also places for sombre moments in 2019. In November, Ms Addelaid Ferreira died in court in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa, while prosecuting a case.

She was shot dead after a shotgun that had been brought to court as evidence dropped and fired at her, leaving her with a fatal injury. This is a case of one who died in the line of duty.

In Kenya, there was one bizarre case where it is said that a woman sued her estranged husband with the intention of obtaining orders to prevent him from receiving any portion of the dowry that was soon to be paid by a suitor in respect of their daughter who was expected to be married in due course.

The woman claimed that the man had abandoned her with the infant and therefore had no basis to expect a part of the dowry meant for a father.

Sekou Owino is head of Legal at Nation Media Group PLC

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