Maseru — The cancellation of the Court of Appeal session on Monday is a culmination of a bitter wrangle that has been raging in the Palace of Justice’s corridors for years.
But it is also a result of a more recent spat between Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla and Court of Appeal President justice Michael Ramodibedi over High Court judges.
A Lesotho Times investigation has revealed that the fight over High Court judges started as early as September.
This paper has been informed that in September last year Justice Ramodibedi requested Justice Lehohla to release Justice ‘Maseshophe Hlajoane and Justice Nthomeng Majara to help in the October session of the Court of Appeal.
The chief justice is said to have taken exception to the fact that the Court of Appeal president was requesting the same judges he has been using in previous session.
He said the Court of Appeal president should rotate the judges as they are all ex-officio members of the Court of Appeal.
The chief justice is also said to have reacted angrily to Justice Ramodibedi’s decision to copy his letter of request to the two judges.
He warned the Court of Appeal president to desist from doing so in future.
In response to the Court of Appeal president Justice Lehohla rejected the idea of rotating the judges and insisted that the two judges be released.
The chief justice however refused to release the two judges but offered acting judges, Justices Kananelo Mosito and Motiea Teele who later heard appeal cases during the October session.
The battle over judges started again in November.
Justice Ramodibedi’s request for the release of Justice Hlajoane and Justice Majara for the January session was rejected again.
The chief justice told him to use acting judges, Mosito and Teele.
For a moment it seemed the matter had been put to rest but relations deteriorated further around mid-November when Justice Ramodibedi told the chief justice that he was not requesting his permission to use High Court judges but merely informing him of his decision.
In a letter dated November 15 Justice Ramodibedi told the chief justice that he must remember that High Court judges are ex-officio members of the Court of Appeal and they obliged to serve the court when instructed.
The chief justice responded with a strongly-worded letter on November 15, telling the Court of Appeal president that because of his attitude he was not going to release even the acting judges.
“I am transfixed that you have paid no attention to my kind response to your letter dated 4th September 2012 expressed in my evenly dated letter of 7th September 2012,” Justice Lehohla said.
“This being the case I am not going to allow the two judges you have made so bold as to say you ‘ . . . inform’ me that you decided to use i.e Judges Teele and Mosito for the January 2013 session.”
“It is not acceptable to have my authority as chief justice of Lesotho undermined by the extraneous ways you manifestly seem determined to pursue without any let-up in sight,” he said.
“I told you earlier that His Majesty’s judges in the High Court are entitled to serve in the Court of Appeal on a rotational basis according as agreed between me and your predecessor”.
“What I object in your ‘informing’ me is the implication that I should do your bidding by bowing and scraping. I demur at being used as a rubber-stamp. I am seriously adverse to that”.
Justice Ramodibedi is understood to have informed Prime Minister Tom Thabane and Justice Minister Haae Phoofolo but they did not intervene.
Unable to form the corum of three judges that is required for cases in the Court of Appeal, Justice Ramodibedi was forced to cancel the session.
The victims of the current fiasco are many.
Justice Teele immediately resigned as acting judge.
He is understood to have said he did not want to be involved in the power struggles at the Palace of Justice.
The six cases on the roll have been postponed.
The cancellation is a huge inconvenience to the litigants who have been waiting for their cases to be heard for months.
It also comes with a huge cost to the litigants, some of whom had already paid hundreds of thousands of maloti for legal representation.
Apart from the inconvenience and the cost there is also the fact that the cancellation keeps the litigants in limbo as they have to wait until April for their cases to be finalised.
Lawyers for litigants too have been affected because they now have to rearrange their diaries.
Because their cases were going to be heard in the January session they had probably rejected or postponed some cases to clear their schedules for the hearing.
On Monday a livid Justice Ramodibedi issued a damning statement blasting the chief justice for refusing to give him judges.
“It is for the first time a chief justice of this country has blocked judges from sitting in the Court of Appeal, notwithstanding their legitimate call for national duty and wasted costs to litigants,” he said in an unprecedented attack.
Justice Ramodibeli said according to the constitution the chief justice and High Court judges “fall squarely under the president” as ex-officio members of the Court of Appeal.
“Strictly speaking, therefore, the president does not need the chief justice’s permission to use High Court judges in the Court of Appeal.”
“However, and purely out of courtesy, the president has always ‘informed’ the chief justice as in the present impasse”.