THE BIG INTERVIEW: Ms Christine Birabwa-Nsubuga
Mrs. Birabwa-Nsubuga Christine is the National Coordinator of Justice Centres Uganda, a legal aid Project of the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) that is hosted by the Judiciary. She explained the objectives of Justice Centres Uganda and the fully fledged national body set to be created to offer these free legal services to those who cannot afford them.
What clear plans are in place to provide legal aid services to the 84% of the Ugandan population who do not have access to these services?
These 84% refer to those who cannot access lawyers because the lawyers are concentrated in Kampala or urban centres. I want to give a background to this. Legal aid is the provision of free legal services to those who cannot afford them. The Uganda Poverty Status Report 2014 suggested that 63.7% of people in Uganda are either living in abject poverty, or are vulnerable to poverty which means that they are barely making it and can tilt into abject poverty anytime.
Access to justice is important for any country and even if you cannot afford a lawyer, you still have to resolve the problem somewhat. Right now most legal aid service providers are non-state actors yet the responsibility lies with the State because the state collects taxes from the people and plans for the people.
According to the Human Rights Based Approach to development planning, When the State is planning it is important to have the most vulnerable and marginalised people such as the children, People with Disabilities (PWDs), women and increasingly the youth in mind. Resources must be channelled to the cause of those who are too poor to help themselves to ensure that there is a balanced economy and even the underprivileged can ably contribute to economic development .
Vision 2040 is planning to move Uganda to an upper middle income country in the next 25 years, we need to think about how we get there. Are people healthy, are they feeding well, can they negotiate a contract, are they aware of their rights and obligations as citizens, among others. Therefore thinking about healthcare, education and access to justice become critical.
People must access justice when they need it. If this elderly under privileged man from Alebtong has grown 7 acres of maize and a middle man from Kampala swindles it, and he has no money to hire a lawyer to go after swindler, there should be free legal services for him so as to enable him take care of his family. When he is swindled and is unable to access to justice, he is useless to Vision 2040. A lot of people are poor and they need these services.
Since 2006, the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) which is charged with the administration of justice, together with her development Partners such as the Democratic Governance Facility(DGF), have been working on the establishment of a national body that will be charged with ensuring that people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer are provided free legal services. Since we have the police to arrest people, prisons to detain suspects, the DPP for prosecution, the Judiciary to try people, its only fair to have an institution that would provide legal support to the overwhelming number of people in Uganda who must either use or go through the administration of justice system.
There is currently no comprehensive law on legal aid service provision and the Sector has therefore, come up with a draft Legal Aid Policy that will guide the establishment of such body and how the body will work, how it will be governed, what kind of lawyers will be hired, the cooperation between civil society and the State in this regard, where the funding will come from among others. This Draft policy has been pending Cabinet approval for a while now.
How will you address the corruption in the courts where the poor lose out because they are out-competed by those who have money?
I understand the issue of corruption in Uganda and how it pervades every aspect of life in Uganda. Transparency International is always ranking the judiciary as first or second in terms of corrupt institutions whether it is perceived or real. If an institution is established to support the poor through the justice system, then far be it that it should join the corruption queue. It would be defeatist for a legal aid service provider to take bribes from the poor! For the last six years, we have ensured Justice Centres Uganda is a corruption free zone. We have strict measures for our staff thus far. I cannot say I will keep corruption away but we have mechanisms in place to ensure that corruption does not flow into free legal services. Because if it does then the whole idea of free legal services will have died. That is why we are discouraging the idea of cost sharing. Pay the court fees, and then we pay this, pay our transport and we pay this… it will open up gaps for people to take bribes from the ordinary person.
In 2013 we conducted a client satisfaction survey, and fortunately everybody we interviewed, about 330 people said no body from Justice Centre Uganda had ever asked them for a bribe.
What will be the structure of the legal aid body once it is in place?
The body will be a national Government body in the form of an Authority, Commission or Department. It is hoped that it will be semi-autonomous, to be able to enforce professional and quality standards in a swift manner. We are looking to mirror the DPP who prosecute alleged law breakers on behalf of the State, so that we have an institution that goes to court on behalf of the people whether is civil or criminal matters. The only qualification will be meeting the criteria for poor and or vulnerable.
The legal aid body will have Headquarters with regional offices to ensure that the services are brought to the lowest grass root levels. To this end a mixed model is proposed where the state body will be complemented by non state actors. It would be important to have some legal support at least up to the Sub county level with the use of properly trained professional paralegals.
It is proposed that the Board of Directors shall consist of people with different expertise; a representative from Uganda Law Society, The Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Civil society, academics, psycho social specialists among others. The Uganda Law Council will perform the regulatory function to ensure that the non state actors delivering legal aid meet the minimum standards. The Law Council will be restructured to be able to perform the additional functions and provide accreditation to all non State actors in legal aid service delivery.
The legal aid sub-sector has learned a lot from Legal Aid South Africa because they have the best system in Africa and are also very competitive globally. It is hoped that this learning will continue to ensure that Uganda too provides a professional good quality service to all who deserve it.
Funding and Sustainability
Funding will come primarily from the State and with a lot of goodwill from development partners there is certainty of continued support even when the national institution is established. The Policy proposes the creation of a Legal Aid Fund that will ensure ringfenced resources for legal aid. Furthermore, when the National body wins cases and gets awarded costs, these will be ploughed back in for sustainability. Further sustainability measures will include establishment of a self representation department which will utilize minimal resources, encouraging alternative dispute resolution which is cheaper and faster. Part of the strategy will be to create awareness to the masses which will help reduce the potential legal problems that occur majorly due to lack of information.
What will the body do about laws such as HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Act which some people deem discriminatory?
We are going to be covering all aspects of the law. If a person comes to us saying they feel they have been discriminated against by a certain aspect of the law, nothing will stop us from taking it on provided it has merit and the person is poor. Through the delivery of legal aid, we look at Article 21 of the Constitution which talks about equal protection of the law for all. We will address issues of discrimination if they are brought to us and not necessarily go about each law which is considered discriminatory. We are mainly attending to people and issues relating to the poor who cannot afford the services of a lawyer.
The land disputes have mainly affected the poor with many being dispossessed and being evicted from their land. What is the way forward?
More than 70% of all court cases are land related and they are between the haves and the have-nots. Land is a hot commodity, investors want it, everyone wants a piece. Landlords and bibanja owners are in conflict due to the double interest on the same piece of land. Those who cannot afford are being deprived. In the North where land is not registered and customarily owned, widows who are not from the clan owned land are ordered to leave the land. The land cases are clogging the courts endlessly. But in most of these cases we are offering mediation because most of the people involved are related. There are few instances where strangers impose themselves on land. So here we are looking at mediation where we sit down with these people and help them talk. We have found this extremely useful and in fact the courts are now encouraging mediation not just in land matters but in all matters because of its potential to preserve relationships, end the conflict faster and cost less.
How will you ensure proper coordination with the rural communities spread out across Uganda?
Justice Centres Uganda is a Project or forerunner for the legal aid body in the offing. JLOS will find the appropriate name and complete structure. We carried out a study called “A Digestive Report of Best Practices and and Prospects for the Future of National Legal Aid Service Delivery by the Government of Uganda” The study helps to guide; where the legal aid centres should be located, how much the lawyers and other staff should be paid to attract good quality professional staff, the cost of establishing one centre, where the poor are mostly found, how to spread out across the country among other issues, how much it will cost a year to deliver legal aid , so that the Government can plan properly.
So we have thought through the fact that this service must reach the grass roots and it is planned that working together with the districts and the different JLOS institutions, all the rural communities will access legal aid conveniently.
Law is an elitist issue and yet majority of the people you are targeting are ill-educated folks. How do you reconcile this?
We are targeting the poor so we simplify all the laws and put them in easy to read material, translate them into local languages. For instance, we draw pictures of someone paying money and we put a cross indicating that no money is supposed to be paid here. We come down to their levels even when we are doing the outreaches. We speak to these people, listen to them and understand their plight. If we talk about legal aid and speak English, dressed in ways that send them away, then we will not achieve our goal. We have thought through this. When we are going to rural places, we dress appropriately. It is critical that our clientele appreciate our services so we work hard towards that. No one must ever get the impression that because we are giving for free and giving to the poor and vulnerable then anything goes. We must give our best, because we have chosen to provide this service.
Uganda’s population is growing very fast meaning that it may provide a challenge for this Project in terms of numbers.
We are looking at a cascaded kind of spreading of services, to grow as resources permit. We have to plan if we are feeding into Vision 2040. Just as roads have a roadmap from how they were being used in 1960 when we had a population of about 6 million to today when we have a population of 35million. We have a plan to expand legal aid services because so many people need them but it is going to be difficult to satisfy the need instantly. We are going to look for partners and come up with creative ways of meeting that need.
What is your projection for the legal aid services in five years once they are in full gear?
We envision a great contribution to Vision 2040, also a contribution to the economy of Uganda through empowering the marginalised and vulnerable. Five years from now with the policy and law in place, we envision happier people, less conflicts. We envision more access to legal information, a body that will deliver quality, a corruption free institution, and sufficiency of resources to serve the poor. We envision good standards, good customer care, a body that puts the poorest, vulnerable and or marginalised at the centre of legal aid service provision.
This interview was published in The Independent Magazine 04-10 September 2015 Issue.