Special Report: 3rd Annual National Legal Aid Conference
The Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) in partnership with Justice Centres Uganda (JCU) with support from the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) held the 3rd annual National Legal aid Conference on August 10, 2015 at the Commonwealth Speke Resort Munyonyo. H.E the President of the Republic of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was the Chief guest. Also present was the Chief Justice, Hon. Justice Bart Katureebe, the Deputy Attorney General and State Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Hon. Mwesigwa Rukutaana, the Netherlands ambassador to Uganda, H.E Alphons Hennekens, judges of the high court and appellate courts, members of parliament, civil society, members of the public and officials from all JLOS institutions.
The purpose of this Conference was to create awareness about the on-going efforts to establish a policy, law and national institution on Legal Aid. The ultimate objective of the Conference was to fast track the establishment of the National Legal Aid Body. The President in his key note address during the opening of the conference pledged to have the legal aid bill introduced on the floor of parliament. He said this was in line with the government’s consistent efforts over the years in improving the welfare of all Ugandans especially the poor who are weighed down by the bondages of poverty and corruption through various interventions that directly impact on the vulnerable. Government is therefore in full support of the establishment of the body and will provide the requisite guidance and support towards this cause.
What is Legal Aid?
Legal Aid is the provision of free legal services to the poor, vulnerable and marginalised people who cannot afford the services of paid lawyers. Article 21 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda provides for equality before the Law. To ensure equality of all persons before the Law and to enhance access to Justice, the provision of Legal Aid is critical. The Government of Uganda has put in place measures to ensure that there is fairness in the Administration of Justice. Currently, State legal aid service providers include the Judiciary through the State Brief Scheme under which every person charged with a Capital offence is provided with an advocate at the Cost of the State. Justice Centres Uganda which is a Project of the Justice Law and Order Sector provides Legal Aid on behalf of the State across civil and criminal justice. Legal aid is also provided by non-state actors such as FIDA and the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society.
The need for a national legal aid body
The Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) with support from the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) and in consultation with other state and non-state actors developed the National Legal Aid Policy which is currently before cabinet for approval. After that, a National Legal Aid Bill shall be tabled before Parliament. The passing of this law will result in the establishment of a National Body with a mandate to provide Legal Aid across all areas of the Law.
Key emerging issues from the 3rd National Legal aid Conference
1. There are constitutional and legislative guarantees for legal aid in Uganda. The right to legal aid is part of the right to a fair trial. Legal aid is a necessity; it is a human right which contributes to access to justice, enhancing good governance, democracy and development in the country. Ultimately, legal aid contributes to transformation of the lives of the communities at all levels.
2. There are challenges in provision of legal aid including lack of guaranteed funding; the absence of a policy and legislation; few legal aid service provision centres located far away from the people, inadequate personnel; as well as some systemic challenges affecting the entire Justice, Law and Order Sector.
3. Legal aid services are not merely about the law and lawyers but about the kind of justice and legal system that is desirable in the country that is a requisite for improving the quality of life of the communities. Legal aid is necessary in both criminal and civil matters. It is not just a part of the justice system, but a critical part of the economic development of the country.
4. The State is ultimately responsible for provision of legal aid services as it is the duty of the state to ensure access to justice. Nevertheless, the role of non-state providers like CSOs and the private sector should be enhanced.
5. Development partners have been supporting legal aid by both state institutions and civil society. There is good will and willingness from development partners to continue supporting provision of legal aid. Uganda being a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights could also benefit from international technical cooperation for support to legal aid provision.
6. There is need for creative ways of ensuring that legal aid provision reaches all people that are in need of it; including through the use of technology. Examples were shared from South Africa and the United States of the ways in which legal aid is provided to the people.
7. For sustainability of legal aid provision, any such mechanism must be sensitive to the needs of the people it is meant for; must be realistic about the existing or likely challenges; and must be concerned about the impact the service will have on the people. The mechanism must guarantee quality legal services and therefore should be able to attract and retain experienced lawyers and must effectively be accountable for public funds.
8. The attitude within the legal fraternity towards legal aid needs to change so that legal services are taken as part of their legal practice and a duty to which lawyers should commit themselves fully, whether paid or not.
9. Judges can creatively play an important role to ensure commitment from the lawyers to provide legal aid and quality representation either in open court or in their chambers.
10. In making legal aid provision attractive to lawyers, other opportunities other than the pay, such as mentoring, career development, and learning should be equally emphasized and promoted.
11. There is need for effective communication of the importance of legal aid to all key stakeholders such as Parliament and the general public so that the purpose of the ongoing initiatives on legal aid can be achieved.
12. The consensus of the conference was that a legal aid system adequately funded by the government is necessary in Uganda and long overdue; not only for the state to comply with national and international obligations, but to bring on board more people in need of legal services thus making the justice system more desirable and effective. Government was urged to expedite the enactment of the national legal aid policy and Bill now before Cabinet.
13. There is need to bring legal aid initiatives under one umbrella body to enhance its contribution to the transformation of communities and to also address the prevailing challenges to the effectiveness of existing initiatives. In this regard, there is need to establish a body with a solid legal basis hence the urgency to pass the national policy and the Bill; which body should be accountable and subject to the existing public finance laws; and have a mandate to provide quality legal services as well as public education and information.
14. Judges should enhance their outreach programmes to engage with the people to enhance public awareness and confidence in the justice system.
15. There is need for Uganda to adopt a national language so as to address the communication barriers that often affect ordinary people as they try to access the justice that largely operates in English the official language.
16. The conference appealed for wholehearted support from the government for the establishment of an effective legal aid system in Uganda.
Assurances from H.E the President
1. The President welcomed the proposal for a National Legal Aid Scheme and assured the conference of government commitment to addressing vulnerability in access to justice. He announced that the Legal Aid Bill would soon be introduced in Parliament.
2. The President also supported the proposal by the Chief Justice to have a chief magistrate in each district and a professional magistrate in every sub-country.
3. The President assured the conference that the JLOS will be supported to automate court processes and re-engineer procedures to reduce the time for accessing the courts; to ensure that unrepresented litigants are facilitates to use the legal system; and that paralegals are promoted to supplement the role of the legal profession in providing services to the people.
4. The President reiterated support to the construction of the JLOS House through the PPP and assured the conference that the necessary resources would be provided to ensure the project is implemented.
By Edgar Kuhimbisa