In 2010, when Night (not real name) fled her violent husband’s home and returned to her parents in Kasese, she expected him to go for her – as is often the norm in Uganda.
To her surprise, things didn’t happen that way. It was, instead, a court bailiff who came knocking at her father’s door in May last year. The bailiffs had carried court summons from Makindye magistrate’s court, requiring Night to appear before the court within two weeks in a divorce case filed by her husband.
“The letter was delivered 10 days after it had been issued. To make matters worse, it was on a Friday. And since courts don’t work on weekends, I knew I had only three days to appear in court or else the judge makes his ruling,” recalls Night, who asked us to withhold her name so she could speak freely.
Scared by the summons, a panicky Night ran to the Kasese Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for assistance, thinking he would prevail over the situation. But after reading through the summons, his response was that she was “in trouble and urgently needed to engage a lawyer.”
“I couldn’t afford a lawyer. I had actually never used one before,” says Night.
She then sought help from her brother in Kampala, who was also clueless on what to do since they couldn’t afford the services of a lawyer. As they pondered their next step, her brother’s friend aised them to try The Association of Women Lawyers (Fida).
“But we had no idea of where Fida was. My brother tried asking around but no one seemed to know. He had to give money to his friends to go on the internet, and they got to know that it was somewhere in Kamwokya,” narrates Night.
When she got to the Fida office, Night found many other women who were waiting to be attended to that morning. Each of the newcomers was asked to pay Shs 5,000 to open up a file with Fida – before she was allocated a lawyer called Florence Epodoi.
“Florence was so nice to me. She told me not to panic. She instructed me to go to court and ask for more time to prepare my defence,” Night says.
“Court people are not easy to deal with. They tossed me up and down. I think they wanted to be bribed and yet I didn’t have the money.”
But with good guidance from her lawyer, Night was able to have the judge extend her deadline. Without paying any more fees to Fida, Night was defended by Epodoi until the judge recently ruled in her favour. He ordered her husband to pay her Shs 10 million and give her one of his plots of land before they divorce.
No access to lawyers:
Apparently, the husband, who is a tour operator, had accused her of neglecting and abandoning her home, something that the judge would have based on to judge in his favour and see Night end up empty handed after the divorce. Night’s story ended on a happy note for her. Otherwise, many Ugandans are denied justice simply because they can’t afford the services of a lawyer to represent them in court.
According to the acting Chief Justice, Steven Kavuma, some 36 per cent of Ugandans cannot afford hiring the services of aocates. Yet access to justice is an inalienable right in international and regional human rights instruments.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) elaborates access to justice as including the right to legal assistance and Uganda’s Constitution further gives entitlement for an accused person charged with a capital offence to be represented in court at state expense. In a number of respects, the national legal framework including the poor persons defence act the aocates (amendment) act, the aocates (pro bono services to indigent persons) regulations, and the aocates (student practice) rule provide for this right by way of legal aid service provision.
Shs 20bn needed:
The minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Maj Gen (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire, says the ministry needs about Shs 20bn to provide legal aid to indigent people, but they usually receive far less than that.
“Shs 20bn is still not enough, but at least it can mitigate on the situation,” Otafiire says.
“It is estimated that every year, a lawyer gets on average 2,000 cases to handle. They don’t have time to handle all these cases, that is why the poor are not attended to.”
According to Berna Bakkidde Kiberu, the programmes manager at Legal Aid Service Providers’ Network (LASPNET), “access to justice through effective provision of legal aid services is more than just improving the ability of people (especially the indigent) to seek and obtain a remedy through formal and informal institutions of justice delivery.”
“It is also a fundamental characteristic of good governance – the backbone on which development processes are based to ensure that services are equitably delivered to citizens and that peace reigns in the nation.”
That is why LASPNET, a coalition of 45 member organisations, chips in to offer free legal aid to vulnerable people. This has enabled poor and marginalised people to defend their rights, protect their property, get legal representation and assistance in criminal matters and know their rights. Among these members are Fida and Uganda Christian Lawyers’ Fraternity (UCLF), an association of Christian lawyers offering free legal aid to all sorts of needy people, especially in the area of criminal offence representation.
“While the constitution provides for free legal representation for people charged with capital offences, not many private lawyers want to do state brief because of the poor pay. And even those who are willing, aren’t committed and regular in court, which fails the whole justice system,” says Suzanne Aisia Musooli, UCLF’s Criminal Public Defence Coordinator.
Aisia reveals that a private lawyer earns between Shs 250,000 and Shs 300,000 from government to handle one case to the end. This is such small money, which has seen many lawyers shying away from state brief. The result has been an increase in case backlog and prolonged detentions.
“Our role is to complement the state brief, by taking on more of these cases on a pro bono offer. We work with chief magistrates and high court registrars to allocate us cases, especially those that have overstayed. And we lobby for sessions for such cases,” Musooli says.
With funding from organisations such as the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), UCLF handles more than 1,000 cases every year, according to Musooli.
“We have seen a reduction especially in the pre-trial detention periods because of our intervention. In the past, people would spend six to eight years in prison without being tried,” notes Musooli. “But with the help of JLOS, that has now come down to three years.”
Source : The Observer