But it’s not all bad news. Citizens often (in almost half of the cases of justice problems) turn to the Local Council Courts (LCCs) for dispute resolution, because decisions there are reached quickly, and they are accessible both financially and geographically. During our research, we were frequently told that going to the Local Council is the first step: “Where else would you go unless it is a big case that requires police?”
That said, LCCs suffer from several weaknesses such as lack of legal skills, and it is not uncommon to see existing power structures in communities be transferred to the LCCs, especially at the village or parish level. These problems could be alleviated if the government were to take concrete steps towards strengthening the ties between the formal and informal justice systems, while simultaneously empowering the LCCs with the resources and skills necessary to provide fair solutions. This can include dialogue and training to introduce LCC Chairpersons to inclusive dispute resolution approaches, new laws and supporting dialogue processes to build synergies between the formal and informal justice system. Another strategy for improvement is supporting entrepreneurs that set up innovative businesses centred on justice needs. Within an ecosystem of investor networks, business incubators, creatives and justice professionals, those businesses that have successfully demonstrated ‘proof-of-principle’ can be scaled up. An example of such a ‘justice innovation’ is the mSMEGarage founded by ‘Barefoot Lawyers’: a group of Ugandan lawyers providing (free) legal advice to people and small businesses amongst other via Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, and an online platform. A third strategy is to invest in innovating and simplifying procedures where access to justice is most needed, such as family and land problems.
Improving access to justice will pay dividends many times over. Given how key this is for citizens’ livelihoods, improving the system will yield positive benefits for the development of Ugandan society. If individuals are able to access justice and thereby secure their income and livelihoods, this will have a positive effect that ripples through the economy and society
At the end of the day, it will be crucial for the Justice Law & Order Sector (JLOS) in Uganda to evolve in a way that improves access to justice for the citizens who need it the most. Fortunately, there are positive indications of such progress, given the sector’s focus on establishing and sustaining linkages and oversight over informal mechanisms, such as the Local Council Courts. During the launch of our report, Rachel Odoi, the senior technical advisor to JLOS emphasized that our findings “could have a tremendous impact on the future of the justice system in Uganda. The proposed solutions and tools provide a blueprint for action.”
Time will tell how these developments will play out, and HiiL looks forward to supporting JLOS and other stakeholders in making Kampala the ‘Justice Innovation Capital of Africa,’ as Chief Justice Emeritus Benjamin Odoki eloquently stated. Consequently, the next time a woman is abused by her husband, or a farmer’s land is stolen from him, they will know where to go for quick and fair solutions. They will know how to find justice.