Seven staff from the newly formed high court northern branch on the island of Kulhudhufushi in Haa Dhaal atoll have been transferred to jobs in Malé amid reports of the judiciary facing budget constraints.
A former employee of the northern branch said three were moved to the department of judicial administration, two to the drug court, and two to the judicial academy, an institution set up to provide training for judges and court staff.
“The [Kulhudhufushi high court] building hasn’t been closed, but seven of us were brought to Malé and told that we are here to get practical work experience,” said the court staff who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The staff were not told how long they would have to work in Malé.
“All of us were in well-paying jobs on our island before we joined. We applied only because it was based on our island. To be moved here indefinitely and having to work away from our families is hard on us,” said the court official.
The judiciary was mandated to set up the regional branch by legal changes approved by the parliament more than two years ago, which divided the nine-judge appeals court into three branches.
The regional branches in the north and south were to hear appeals of magistrate court verdicts. Aside from hearing appeals of cases decided by the trial courts in Malé, only the main branch in the capital can decide on constitutional challenges to laws and regulations.
Mariyam Fathin, spokeswoman of the department of judicial administration, insisted that the Haa Dhaal branch has not been shut down due to budget constraints, despite media reports to the contrary.
“It’s not because of anything like that. Judges are appointed by the [Judicial Service Commission]. A judge has not been set for the Haa Dhaal branch because JSC has not yet appointed one,” she said.
Unlike the northern branch, the southern branch in Addu City has been hearing cases since late 2016. But two judges resigned after their transfer to the southernmost atoll.
Fathin said the high court presently has two vacancies. Of the seven judges on the bench, two have been transferred to Addu City and four are working in the Malé branch.
The law requires each branch to have three judges. An announcement has been made to fill the vacancies.
The JSC spokesman meanwhile explained that the DJA spokeswoman was mistaken about the watchdog’s role in appointing high court judges. According to the changes brought to the Judicature Act in December 2014, the supreme court must appoint judges to the regional branches.
Meanwhile, during the parliament’s evaluation in November of the state budget proposed for 2017, the DJA had expressed concern with an MVR100 million (US$6.4 million) reduction in the judiciary’s budget compared to the previous year.
The DJA is tasked with managing the courts and providing facilities, training, archiving systems and security for judges.
The proposed budget was “insufficient to even distribute salaries for judges and employees,” the department said, warning that the courts could stop functioning before the end of the year.
But Finance Minister Ahmed Munawar told MPs that cuts were made to the budgets of both the judiciary and independent institutions to eliminate funding for unappointed posts, overtime salary, non-practising allowance, travel expenses, repairs, study tours, purchases such as computer systems and decorations for official functions.
He assured lawmakers that the budget is sufficient for the judiciary to function.
“In addition to this, the proposed contingency budget is rich enough to issue funds for necessary expenditure,” he said.
The DJA’s spokeswoman said measures have been implemented to work with the smaller budget and courts have been instructed to make changes to reduce expenses.
“We asked magistrate courts to manage the work within official working hours and not to schedule hearings outside of these hours unless necessary,” she said.
VFP reported in January that the criminal court has been closing at 3pm every day since the beginning of the year to avoid paying overtime.
The court has been scheduling remand hearings during working hours, an official told the online paper.
But the court’s spokesman told the Maldives Independent that the budget issue has largely been resolved.
“At the beginning of this year, staff were encouraged to finish all work before three. That was because it was difficult to give overtime pay because of the budget. But even then if a hearing got delayed it would take place after hours,” he said.
The civil court meanwhile stopped sending summons to the capital’s suburbs Hulhumalé and Vilimalé earlier this month, citing the lack of funds to pay MVR5.5 and MVR3.25, respectively, for ferry tickets. Both islands near Malé are considered administrative wards of the capital.
“There are many things on hold because the budget is tight. Some days we don’t get water. Problems are piling,” a court official told Raajje TV.
The state minister in charge of the Health Protection Agency meanwhile told MPs earlier this month that the agency has exhausted its record-low budget after buying vaccines and medicines.
The HPA’s budget for 2017 was MVR3.5 million (US$227,000), down from MVR24 million (US$1.5 million) last year.
The Maldives Independent has been awaiting a response from the finance ministry about the budget issues since last Monday. A media official failed to respond after saying he would share questions with the minister.
Following delays in paying January’s wages for police officers, the ministry’s information officer insisted that the government is not facing any cash flow problems.
The tax authority collected a record MVR2.2 billion (US$142 million) in January but both police officers and civil servants were paid days after their normal payday.
The finance minister blamed the delays on the transition to a new automated payment system.