Pro bono legal services no panacea to access to justice
Posted Friday, March 15 2013 at 02:00
Last month, lawyers marked the second annual pro bono day, a symbolic day to create awareness of the pro bono services provided by the legal fraternity.
The laudable initiative by the Uganda Law Society to provide pro bono (free) legal services to the indigent might be rendered an exercise in futility if the gaping shortfalls in the wider criminal and civil justice system are not urgently addressed.
Last month, lawyers marked the second annual pro bono day, a symbolic day to create awareness of the pro bono services provided by the legal fraternity. The occasion marked at the Chogm grounds was sandwiched between the parliamentary building and the Chinese-built office of the President.
The choice of ground might have been for convenience but irony was not lost upon many, given the disregard for access to justice these two institutions have shown over the years. Collectively, these two institutions have contrived to deliver a weak Judiciary.
The wrong but popular excuse for limited access to justice has been exorbitant costs of procuring legal services. Granted, lawyers are not charity service providers but owe it to their community to give back. They have done so under the pro bono legal services, where hundreds of people have benefitted.
However, as we have learnt over the years, free legal services by lawyers are not a panacea to justice, for access to justice entails more than just access to a lawyer. Access to a lawyer is but a component of a wider justice machine. Access to justice is a continuum of institutions and processes each playing a distinct role.
Even if lawyers put their act together, it will be spitting against the wind if the adjudicating, investigating and prosecutorial arms of the justice process remain unwilling to embrace reforms and mired with accusations of corruption and abuse of power.
The Executive and Legislature have contrived to render the courts ineffective. In 2007, the Judicature Act was amended, increasing the number of judges at the High Court to 50, Court of Appeal from 7 -15 and the Supreme Court from 7-15. To date, the Court of Appeal has 7 sitting justices and the Supreme Court has 5 justices with many either nearing retirement age or in poor health.
The Supreme Court is incapable of hearing any constitutional appeals, which requires a panel of seven justices. The absurdity of the situation was exposed in a case where the appeal came up for hearing before the Court of Appeal long after the person had served the sentence he had set to appeal.
The Judiciary remains riddled with accusations of corruption, inefficiency and incompetence and yet calls for an inquiry into these issues by the Uganda Law Society are being scoffed at with ridicule.
In the criminal justice sector, the police reform, intended to revamp the Uganda Police Force, was abandoned in 2011 and the institution is now concerned more with parading suspects to the press than investigating ingredients of an offence.
Nearly 54 per cent of the prison population is on remand either because police investigations are ongoing, incomplete or because a High Court criminal session has not been convened for lack of funding, if there is a judge in the first place to hear these cases.
The prosecutorial bodies, DPP and IGG are riddled with accusations of selective prosecutions and acting at the whims of certain sections of society. The claim of abuse of prosecutorial powers is commonplace.
If we fail to address the above and other challenges of the criminal and civil justice process, attempts such as those by the lawyers at providing pro bono legal service will be in futility. We would be better served by starting to purge the Judiciary of corruption, appoint judges and justices, and improve their remuneration.
Like we did with the army, a complete reform of the police to ensure a professional police force rather than a force largely viewed, as regime police, would enhance access to justice. A judicious rather than malicious exercise of prosecutorial powers by the prosecuting bodies would certainly do access to justice a lot good.
Mr Opiyo is a human rights advocate based in Kampala.