Report from Ghana: Gender Breakthrough at the Supreme Court

On the 25th of March, 2007, the then Chief Justice of the Republic of Ghana, Justice George Kingsley Acquah died at the age of 65, five years short of the compulsory retirement age, from cancer. He had occupied the position since the 4th of July 2003 as the first locally trained lawyer since 1876 to rise to the pinnacle of the Ghanaian Judiciary.

During his tenure, Chief Justice Acquah spearheaded a campaign to erase the deep-seated perception of corruption in the Judiciary and to make that arm of government more effective. He supervised the inauguration of the Commercial Court Division of the High Court, demanded the highest standards of judges, encouraged alternative dispute resolution, replaced direct payment of administrative charges with a computerised system, put in measures to quicken the pace of justice delivery and generally strove to give the Judiciary a better image. His vision appeared to be on course and so his sudden demise quickly ignited discussion on whether his successor would be as dynamic as he had been.

Under the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana, the country’s supreme law, upon the death of a sitting Chief Justice, the most senior of the Justices of the Supreme Court was to act in that capacity, until the President of Ghana acting in consultation with the Council of State and with the approval of Parliament appointed a new Chief Justice.

While Justice Kpegah as the most senior of the Justices acted, the nation waited with bated breath to see who would be appointed by the President to become the nation’s 24th Chief Justice since 1876 or its 12th since independence in 1957. Of the thirteen Justices of the Supreme Court, only three were female.

There were mixed reactions when the news broke that the President had in consultation with the Council of State appointed Justice Georgina Wood (nee Lutterodt) as the next Chief Justice of Ghana pending her approval by Parliament. Whilst many, especially gender advocates, lauded the President’s decision with common accord, a few political and media analysts were not that quick with their support, but they were few.

Parliament was unanimous in its approval of Her Ladyship, cementing her place in the history books as the first ever lady in Ghana and perhaps in Africa to become Chief Justice. Under the Ghanaian Constitution, apart from the President, the Vice-President and the Speaker of Parliament, in that order, Her Ladyship as the Chief Justice takes precedence over all other persons in Ghana. In a country where the top echelon of public office is almost an exclusive preserve for men, this is a major gender breakthrough.

Her Ladyship made quite a bit of news when she declined her first appointment to the Supreme Court before finally accepting it in 2002. Perhaps what made her a household name was the committee named after her which was set up on the 4th of July 2006 to investigate the disappearance of 77 packets of cocaine from a shipping vessel MV Benjamin a little over two months earlier. Among other things, the Georgina Wood Committee was mandated to investigate an allegation of a two hundred thousand dollar bribe paid to some senior police officers in connection with the cocaine as well as the 588kg of cocaine seized from some foreign nationals apparently connected to the vessel. The Committee discharged its duties and presented its report to the Government.

Her Ladyship who turned 60 on June 8, 2007 is a product of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghana as well as the Ghana School of Law. In the early 1970’s she joined the Ghana Police Service where she worked as a Deputy Superintendent with the Police Prosecutions Unit for three years. She joined the Judicial Service and became a District Magistrate in 1974, was promoted to the High Court in 1986, served at the Court of Appeal for 11 years from 1991 until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 2002. She has since 2000 also served as a member of the Supreme Court of Gambia.

Clearly, Her Ladyship comes to the high office with an enviable track record. Quite apart from her vast experience, her judgments are often cited in the Law of Interpretation Class at the Ghana School of Law as espousing the Modern Purposive Approach to interpretation rather than the antiquated strict constructionist approach or the other less impressive approaches.

In paying glowing tribute to her predecessor at her swearing-in-ceremony, she pledged to carry on with his great vision, reforms and gender activism. She described her new role as a heavy burden and responsibility placed on her shoulders and promised not to let the nation down. She insisted that although the problems of the Judiciary were many she was determined with the help of God and her colleagues to solve them.

At the same ceremony, the President of Ghana summed up the expectations of the nation when he admonished Her Ladyship to provide the kind of leadership that would enable the Judiciary to make an input for Ghana to develop with vision, fairness and justice. He prayed her to discharge her responsibilities in a manner as to convince other women and the nation as a whole that women could perform excellently as Chief Justices, Speakers of Parliament or even as Presidents.

Despite the efforts of Her Ladyship’s predecessor, the Judiciary continues to be faced with a myriad of problems. The perception of corruption lingers on. There are complaints about the slow pace of justice delivery even at the Fast Track High Court. The condition of service of staff of the Judicial Service could be improved. The criminal justice system could be a little more humane and court premises apart from a few in the capital city could be given much needed face-lifts.

At the ceremony to receive the mantle of office from the acting Chief Justice, Her Ladyship was apt in her observation, “I believe we are all aware of the disturbing criticisms that have been levelled against us by the general public in recent times. Each of us must definitely make integrity our priority and collectively do everything in our power to redeem the image of this noble institution”. She went on, “in our quest to build a Judiciary which truly meets our national aspirations I can also count on your support….however big the head, it must stand on a body”.

On the issue of whether or not gender was the overriding consideration in the appointment of Her Ladyship, Mr. Solomon Kwami Tetteh, President of the Ghana Bar Association (GBA) said, “At the Bar, there is no gender and I give the Chief Justice all the respect as the person holding the post of Chief Justice. She deserves it and so I will not say the President gave it to her because of her sex [sic] but because she is very capable…The new Chief Justice is known to have a firm hand on whatever she sets out to do and I am confident that with the encouragement and support of the Bar, the good image of the Judiciary would be restored”.

The job at hand is a huge one. The Constitution vests the judicial power of Ghana in the Judiciary and provides that neither the President nor Parliament nor any other organ or agency of the President or Parliament shall have or be given final judicial power. The Constitution also makes the Chief Justice the Head of the Judiciary and responsible for the administration and supervision of the Judiciary.

Her Ladyship’s appointment seems to have given elbow-power to Ghana’s demonstrably increasing belief in the maxim, “Equity is Equality”.

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