September 28, 2023

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How innovation can lead to better access to justice for the Ugandan people

Ms. Johanna Piest, HiLL Innovating Justice Ms. Johanna Piest, HiLL Innovating Justice

A young pregnant woman undergoes a caesarean by an unqualified doctor and is now in pain every day but is afraid to report it to the police. A farmer becomes a victim of land grabbing, and is unable to feed his family, but can't afford transportation to the courthouse. A wife is severely beaten by her drunken husband but does not know where to turn to for help. These are all true stories, and we heard many stories similar to these accounts in the course of researching “Justice Needs in Uganda”. In this research launched on the 14th of April by my organization, HiiL, Innovating Justice, we interviewed more than 6000 people from all corners of the country.  

It turns out that almost nine out of 10 Ugandan citizens needed access to the justice system over the last few years, but their needs remained unmet. Many of those who embarked on a justice journey, either through the informal or formal system, found the processes to be lengthy and unfair, especially when the other party was richer or more powerful. Others struggled to navigate complex systems in the absence of clear information about the appropriate organization or institution to address their specific problems. And still others believe that no matter what they did, nothing would change their situation for the better. The fact is, across the country, millions of Ugandans have to deal with these issues. 

 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.


The writer is a justice sector advisor at HiiL.  Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Last modified on Thursday, 06 July 2023 11:53