MASERU — Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla and Court of Appeal President Michael Ramodibedi are locked in a bitter fight over who should be the head of the judiciary in Lesotho.
Although the battle has been going on since 2009 the Lesotho Times can reveal that it turned nasty at a regional chief justices’ meeting in Uganda last month.
The two are members of the Southern African Chief Justices Forum, a grouping of chief justices from 15 southern African countries.
Justice Ramodibedi, 66, is a member of the forum by virtue of being the chief justice of Swaziland.
The meeting was held in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, on September 9 and 10.
Sources say on September 10 Justice Lehohla, 67, launched a “scathing” attack on Justice Ramodibedi accusing him of hijacking his powers and privileges as the head of the judiciary in Lesotho.
A highly placed source said Justice Lehohla told the meeting that Justice Ramodebedi had usurped his powers with the help of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and his cabinet.
Apparently Justice Lehohla is still enraged about a March 2009 cabinet directive that said the Appeal Court president is senior to him and should therefore appear first in protocol.
Until Justice Ramodibedi’s appointment in 2008 Justice Lehohla appeared first in protocol and considered himself the country’s most senior judge.
This was because the previous presidents of the Court of Appeal were foreign judges who were never present in the country to attend state functions.
This paper understands that after his appointment Justice Ramodibedi sought clarity on who is senior between the Court of Appeal president and the chief justice.
The cabinet discussed the matter on March 24, 2009 and issued a directive five days later saying in state protocol the Court of Appeal president is senior to the chief justice.
Thereafter the battle over seniority between the two judges seemed to have been resolved.
Justice Lehohla has never accepted that cabinet directive.
His attitude, according to sources who talk to him frequently, is that the directive amounted to stripping him of his powers and privileges he enjoyed before Justice Ramodibedi’s appointment.
He blames Mosisili for instigating the directive to “humiliate” him.
His argument, the source said, is that even Justice Ramodebedi’s predecessor, Justice Steyn, respected the fact that the chief justice was senior to the Court of Appeal president.
At the meeting in Kampala Justice Lehohla raised the issue again and asked the other chief justices to intervene to pressure the Lesotho government to restore his seniority.
“An argument then ensued with Justice Ramodibedi arguing that matters of protocol were a prerogative of the executive but Justice Lehohla would have none of it,” said a source close to the issue.
“Justice Lehohla said before Justice Ramodibedi’s appointment he had always enjoyed the privilege of being the most senior judge and when the cabinet directive removed that privilege he saw this as an act of humiliation.”
“Justice Ramodibedi argued that the directive was based on the fact that the Court of Appeal, which he heads, is the highest court in Lesotho”.
The source described the argument as “acrimonious and embarrassing”.
“When tempers flared Justice Lehohla said he had grabbed the ranking ahead of the president of the Court of Appeal like what happens when people are hunting wild animals. He said when you are chasing a wild animal the understanding is that it belongs to the person who catches it first.”
The source said Justice Ramodibedi then said instead of fighting over protocol Justice Lehohla should concentrate on hearing contested cases in the High Court.
“He said the chief justices must encourage Justice Lehohla to hear cases because his failure to do so was becoming embarrassing.
“He said even a mere court clerk had recently reminded the chief justice that it would help reduce the mounting backlog of cases in the High Court if he heard contested cases”.
The clerk being referred here to is Thabang Mohafa, who is Justice Semapo Peete’s clerk.
Mohafa wrote to the chief justice in August saying he could help reduce the backlog if he starts hearing some contested cases like the other judges on the bench.
Mohafa sent the letter to the Registrar of the High Court and Court of Appeal, ’Mathato Sekoai, asking her to pass on his message to Justice Lehohla, her immediate boss.
The chief justice has not heard contested cases since 2009.
Since October 2009 he has been coming to the courtroom only on Mondays to deal with uncontested cases.
Uncontested cases are those whose appellants would have shown no interest in pursuing.
In those Monday sessions the chief justice will dismiss such cases and remove them from the roll.
Such cases are less engaging than contested ones that require a judge to be in court and make a ruling.
The source said after the long argument the other chief justices asked Justice Ramodibedi and Justice Lehohla to leave the meeting room so they could deliberate on the issue.
When the two were eventually called back they were told that perhaps the best solution would be to recommend the amendment of Lesotho’s constitution to explicitly say who between the chief justice and the Court of Appeal president should be the head of the judiciary.
The constitution is silent on this matter.
Sekoai said she could not comment on the relationship between Justice Ramodibedi and Justice Lehohla because that does not fall under her jurisdiction.