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Legal aid: Ensuring access to justice to the poor

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“My name is Rose (not real name) and I have been referred to you by Judge Richard (not real name) from the Land Division of the High Court of Uganda. I am a Kibanja holder on a piece of land on which I have lived with my late husband for sixty nine years now. My husband passed away in February 2013 and he was buried on the same Kibanja. The week he was buried unidentified people came onto our land in the deep of the night, cut down all the coffee and banana plantations and in the morning, we were informed by one who identified himself as a surveyor that the owners of the land wanted us off. We frantically run around and with our reputation as the poorest family in Masanafu we had no money to give to the police to help us. We none the less approached them and they stated that as the oldest residents of our village, they would do whatever it takes to help us. They had also heard about Justice Centres Uganda (JCU) and they provided us a toll free number which when we called, we got very kind attention to our matter. The surveyor was arrested with the help of JCU and that is how I can still smile today, because of the availability of a free legal service which I could never have dreamed of had I to pay for it myself!”

The story above and many more make life worthwhile for me because the story of access to justice for the poor is a complicated one. The nature of the law is such that even the educated but none lawyers fear to venture into it. The ordinary Ugandan has the impression that you only interact with the law if you have a problem. This makes it more complicated because they do not seek to get legal wise before they get a legal problem. It is more complicated for the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. Most of these are the rural poor, women for whom traditional norms and cultural injustices have already disadvantaged them, children, persons with disabilities, or even the youth.

The Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) together with her development Partners now represented by DGF, have done a great job ensuring that they put a human face to the administration of justice by ensuring that the poor and vulnerable can access justice when they need it, through Justice Centres Uganda, a Project charged with both delivering legal aid services on behalf of the State of Uganda and learning lessons which will be used to establish a fully fledged national body. It will be charged with providing the service as well and creating awareness in order to empower the ordinary person to help themselves when they must interact with the law and the administration of justice system.

The Sector has put together a law and policy that will govern the establishment of legal aid services around the country and this will soon be approved the Cabinet of Uganda. Some of the services offered through Justice Centres Uganda include mediation between parties, legal advice, toll free lines for free legal consultations for the poor, outreaches to impoverished communities to empower them legally, prison decongestion programmes to ensure no one is incarcerated when they shouldn’t be, and legal representation, among others. Legal aid has revolutionised the administration of justice in more ways than one, many a Judge has indicated the fact that now they have the confidence to refer an unrepresented litigant to a professional quality legal aid service means that there will be equal protection by the law of both parties in their courts.

When the Judiciary did not have enough money hire lawyers on State Brief to represent those facing death or life imprisonment, now they simply have to call up the State Legal aid Programme to provide a fair hearing. The ordinary Ugandan can now access justice in civil matters because the JLOS JCU Project provides the service across the civil and criminal divide. The Resident District Commissioner (RDC) of Kiryandongo had this to say; “ One of the most Useful Services that the National Resistance Movement (NRM) has put in place is legal aid. As an RDC I no longer have to get weary of being bogged down with land cases despite being a non lawyer, when Justice Centres Is here! I am so happy with your services and am ready to support the Project whichever way possible. You are indeed working for the poor person in Uganda”! Major David Matovu during a meeting of stakeholders. “Justice Centres Uganda has made the Judiciary more relevant to us the poor people! Am grateful for your service to me when I had nowhere to turn!” George William Peni, a client of JCU whose matter is being handled by JCU.

We have received a lot of support from JCU and in fact we are churning out more mediated cases than courts which have no Justice Centres. Many court users when informed about the various mediators attached to the court always prefer Justice Centres Uganda mediators because they are dependable, work with commitment and are not corrupt! I hope the services can be spread across the country soon, for all the courts to benefit from! Some of the above are comments that indicate the need, relevance and success of the Justice, Law and Order Sector as far as enhancing access to justice for the vulnerable and disadvantaged is concerned.

The story of legal aid starts with the Non-State Actors (Civil Society organisations such as FIDA Uganda, the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society, Uganda Christian Lawyers Fraternity among others) who have been providing legal aid services some for more than 40 years. That Government is working towards a comprehensive legal aid service delivery by the State a step in the right direction. The future is bright for both the administration of justice system and access to justice for those to whom justice has been for the rich and a far cry for the have nots!


By Christine B. Nsubuga, National Coordinator, Justice Centres Uganda - a legal aid project of the Justice, Law and Order Sector.