PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Former Chief Justice (Ghana)
By Maame Ama Adu-Mensah
Chief Justice Sophia Abena Boafoa Akuffo (Rtd.), the tenacious judge who hails from Akropong-Akuapem in the Eastern region of Ghana, was born on December 20, 1949. She attained her secondary school education at Parliament Hill School, Hampstead, London, and Wesley Girls’ High School, Cape Coast, Ghana. Having been inspired by the death of her brother, who was studying to become a lawyer, Sophia decided to take up the mantle and pursued law at the Faculty of Law, University of Ghana, graduating as one of five female students among a class of thirty-five. She also holds an LLM degree from Harvard Law School in the United States of America.
After qualifying as a Barrister-at-Law from the Ghana School of Law in 1975, Akuffo worked for about twenty years as a lawyer in various positions before being called to the bench in 1995. She worked as a Service Personnel with the Legal and Consular Section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ghana and worked in private legal practice with U.V. Campbell & Co. and W.E. Fugar & Co. From 1979 to 1982, she worked as a Legal Officer and Deputy Corporation Secretary of Ghana Airways Corporation. She later became the Legal & Relations Manager/Company Secretary for the Mobil Oil Ghana Group from 1982 to 1992. This included Mobil Oil Liberia Ltd and Mobil Oil Sierra Leone Ltd.
Akuffo’s drive and assiduousness resulted in the creation of her private Law Firm, Akuffo Legal Consultancy (currently Apex Law Consult). She practiced as a Legal Consultant from 1992 until 1995 when she was honored and raised to the Supreme Court Bench by the late former president of Ghana Jerry John Rawlings. Her hard work did not go unnoticed as she was further nominated as Chief Justice, the highest legal office in Ghana, by President Nana Addo Dankwah Akufo-Addo in 2017, and was sworn in after she received approval by Parliament. Her appointment made her the 13th Chief Justice in Ghana and the second woman to occupy such an enviable position after Justice Georgina Wood, her mentor.
Although Akuffo’s tenure as a Chief Justice was brief, it was a monumental two-year period marked by further improvement in the e-justice reforms of the judicial system, which would form the basis of operating a paperless system in the courts. She is renowned for restoring public confidence in the judiciary and safeguarding the image of the judiciary after the corruption scandal that rocked the arm of government after Anas Aremeyew’s exposé on corrupt practices in the Judiciary. She restored confidence by closing down some court complexes which did not meet the specifications of the Judicial Service of Ghana and toured all courts in the country to ensure the highest judicial standards were met.
Throughout her career on the bench, Akuffo’s writing skills, even when expressing her dissenting views, have been touted as remarkable. She has been on the bench of the Supreme Court in notable cases, including New Patriotic Party v Attorney-General (also referred to as the CIBA case), Soon Boon Seo v. Gateway Worship Centre, Abu Ramadan & Nimako v. Electoral Commission, Awuni v. West African Examination Council, and the infamous Montie three case (Abu Ramadan v. Electoral Commission & Attorney General In Re: The Owner of The Station - Montie Fm & 3 others), where a radio host and two of his panelists were held in contempt of court for scandalizing the court. All these cases, and many others, have been instrumental in shaping principles of Constitutional Law in the country. She was the presiding judge for the Mensah v. Mensah case (2012) “which revolutionized the property rights of women in Ghana.” This case overruled the principle of substantial contribution in the distribution of marital property upon dissolution of marriage and established the principle of equality in the distribution of marital property acquired during the subsistence of the marriage, upon such dissolution. Additionally, Akuffo aided in the implementation of the fast-track court system in Ghana.
Akuffo’s valedictory judgment in Martin Kpebu v. The Attorney-General gave a better interpretation of the 48-hour rule in Article 14(3) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana which states that “a person who is arrested, restricted or detained…shall be brought before a court within forty-eight hours after the arrest, restriction or detention.” Delivering the unanimous decision of the Court, she indicated that the 48 hours in the above-stated article includes public holidays, weekends, periods of strike action, or civil unrest. She upheld the personal liberty of individuals who had been arrested upon the suspicion of having committed crimes and thereby brought the long-standing practice of detaining suspects beyond the 48 hour period to an end.
In February 2006, Akuffo was elected as one of the pioneering judges of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR). She further served as the Vice President of the Court for two consecutive terms, first from 2008 to 2010, and then from 2010 to 2012. Thereafter, she became the first woman President of the Court in September 2012 for a term of two years and ended her term as a judge of the court gracefully in 2014. While with the court, she conducted extensive educational outreach in various countries across Africa.
Her zeal for the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to reform the judicial system is also evidenced by her publication, ‘‘The Application of Information & Communication Technology in the Judicial Process-the Ghanaian Experience,” a presentation to the African Judicial Network Ghana (2002).
She has diligently served in positions on various Boards, Commissions, and Committees over the years, both in Ghana and in the African Union. Akuffo served as the Chairperson of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Task Force, Vice President (Special Projects) of the Governing Committee of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute, a member of the Advisory Committee of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Universal Rights Group (Geneva), and even after retirement, the industrious former Chief Justice of the Republic of Ghana continues to serve her country with much fervor as the chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the COVID-19 National Trust Fund. The Board was inaugurated in March 2020 to receive donations from the public to assist in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Akuffo’s dedication to her work and desire to make the judiciary more effective and efficient demonstrate her determination to make the legal system the best it can be.