Legal aid simply refers to the provision of assistance to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system. According to the Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems in Africa, 2004 which Uganda is a signatory, legal aid is broadened ‘to include legal advice, assistance, representation, education, and mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution’. It extends both civil and criminal matters.
In Uganda presently, government provision of legal aid is restricted to free legal representation for indigent accused persons in capital cases. This is known as the State Brief Scheme. This Scheme limits the scope of legal representation to the capital offences i.e. where the accused’s life is at stake e.g. murder, aggravated defilement etc.
Besides the miserable pay to lawyers, state briefs only cover the trial proceedings and does not spread to advice or representation on appeal. It also excludes those charged with serious but non-capital offences in the lower courts who have a likelihood of facing extensive jail terms.
According to 2010 figures from Uganda Bureau of Statistics, above seven million Ugandans are estimated to live below the poverty line and a significant number live slightly above the poverty line whereby any slight blow, like an injustice could nosedive them below the poverty line. Such people have limited capacity to manage the socio-economic tremors of an injustice, such as land grabbing, loss of inheritance or even a family break-up. Such ‘shocks’ also have spill over effects to those dependant on the victim of injustice especially the immediate the family thus exposing them to more vulnerability.
President Museveni addresses the 3rd National Legal Aid Conference at Speke Resort Munyonyo
Within the above background, it’s noteworthy that majority of Ugandans live in rural areas where access to legal services and legal aid are very limited. Whereas the country has approximately 2,000 advocates registered with the Uganda Law Society, the number in full time practice is much lower. So, with an estimated population of about 37 million people, this means that there is one lawyer for every 18,500 Ugandans. But this is not bad. Here is the worst bit. Out of the less than 2000 practicing advocates, an estimated 85% of those are concentrated in Kampala, and most of the other 15% serving the other main towns out of the city.
The World Bank estimates that 84% of Ugandans live in rural areas. So technically, this means that about 31 million Ugandans do not have adequate access to legal services and only about six million Ugandans who live in Kampala and other towns can access the services of a lawyer.
The 84% have to rely on other forms of assistance, such as that provided by the Local Council Courts, traditional leaders or Non-Governmental Organizations providing legal aid services.
Therefore, the combination of majority of lawyers being based in Kampala and other urban areas coupled with most poor people living in rural areas where there are few advocates creates a very huge constituency for legal aid services.
Legal aid empowers poor Ugandans by equipping them with the means to represent themselves in court, or enlist services of a qualified legal representative; mediate their own disputes; gain access to or referral to basic services that enable them to navigate other state services; and, ultimately, have recourse to lawful means of settling their conflicts and disputes without recourse to violence.
Additionally, the benefits of effective legal aid services extend to the family and community as a whole. ‘For example, in civil matters, legal aid services enable workers to demand an employer to pay for work done or to challenge an unfair dismissal at the.
In Uganda, Vision 2040 envisions an upper middle income country in the coming 25 years. This implies that there is need for an informed, healthy and legally empowered citizenry. For this to be achieved, the government must deliberately out measures to promote productivity in the country. Provision of legal aid is one such measure.
Already, the National Legal Aid Bill is in the shelves of Parliament. The Policy is also still before Cabinet. Promises have been made to expedite the processes required to actualize these instruments but nothing has been realized.
Fellow Ugandans, this is a very serious issue which directly affects our wellbeing. We should task our leaders to make commitments to realize these instruments and penalize them if they do not deliver.
Personally, come 2016, I will be looking through the different Presidential and Parliamentary manifestos. Only candidates who convincingly cater for legal aid will qualify to get my vote.
The author is an Advocate of the High Court and Access to Justice Activist