I once had a case at Gulu High Court. The court sat in an upstairs room and the stairs were steep. To access the courtroom, my client and some well-wishers carried me on my wheelchair up the stairs. Unfortunately, when we finally got down after the session, my wheelchair broke. Emmanuel Candia a physically impaired advocate intimates.
He says sometimes clients feel he is unable to represent them effectively because of failure to access some court rooms.
“There’s also a problem of accessing toilets at court rooms. Some of the toilets are narrow and are sometimes locked up for exclusive use by judges,” Candia adds.
It is ironical that the one place they should feel vindicated, the court house, does not have necessary requirements to ease access.
Because of this, last year Candia sued government for its failure to ensure easy accessibility to courts for PWDs and elderly persons. Unfortunately, the case is still pending hearing in court.
Despite the enactment of laws advocating for the construction of public buildings that are PWD complaint, many are still non-complaint. With the exception of the High Court main building in Kampala, all court buildings are not PWDs compliant, an omission that has left many PWDs, unable to follow up their cases.
“My experience in representing persons with disabilities is largely saddled with constraints like physical barriers that affect access to the police stations and courts of law. Some courtrooms are small and not convenient for people who use wheelchairs,” Candia says.
According to the Convention on the Rights of PWDs, among key recommendations made by the committee, was that government ensures that PWDs can easily access justice.
“Adopt measures to ensure that all PWDs have access to justice, including by establishing free legal aid for persons with disabilities who claim their rights, and information and communication in accessible formats, including in braille, tactile, augmentative and alternative formats and the Ugandan sign language,” the Convention on the rights of PWDs reads in part.
This is only a sneak peak of what PWDs have to deal with to access their right to justice. There is so much more that leaves a lot to be desired.
Unfriendly court language
The old court language refers to PWDs as; idiots, lunatics, insane among other demeaning names. David Nangosi, a focal person from National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda says that despite court outlawing the use of such demeaning names, they are still used to refer to PWDs.
There is also lack of brailed gadgets to enable people with a visual impairments read court decisions and documents.
Unimplementation of court orders
Government has been in habit of refusing to implement court orders that are aimed at improving the lives of PWDs. A case in point is when justice David Batema in a 2015 judgment involving Eric Bushoborozi, held that it was wrong for courts of law to wait on ministers to decide whether to release a convict who was previously mentally challenged.
Despite having such a landmark judgment, courts still remand mentally challenged prisoners to await the minister’s orders for release.
“Persons suffering from mental illness who otherwise would have been acquitted, are imprisoned largely to ensure they get treatment. However, most often get lost in the justice systems because of failure by the responsible minister to issue orders for their release,” Candia stresses.
Sign language interpreters
Ms Olivia Nakigozi, a sign language interpreter explains that when a case is opened against a PWD at the police, there is no sign language interpreter to communicate. She says once the recording of the police statements is not done well from the onset, then there will be a problem during the court proceedings.
“The police does not even have a budget to pay sign language interpreters, this means that it’s the PWD who will bear all the costs if they want their case to progress,” Ms Nakigozi avers.
Lack of aides
The category of PWDs who are visually impaired also face challenges of lack of aides at court/ police stations, who can assist and guide them to the right courtroom where their cases are being heard.
Majority of the PWDs are poor, hence unable to hire private lawyers.
The situation has been made worse since the government has not yet passed the national legal aid policy to support the vulnerable with free legal services.
Unsensitised judicial officers
The UN convention demands that there shall be regular training programmes and awareness-raising campaigns and information for court staff, judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agents, including the police and prison officials on the duty to provide access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.
“We have not incorporated programmes to train judicial officers on how to handle cases involving PWDs due to lack of funds,” Mr Moses Gabriel Angualia, the registrar of the Judicial Training Institute says.
Work in progress
Despite the aforementioned challenges that the PWDs face as they pursue justice, there are a number of steps being taken by various stakeholders to remedy the situation.
First ramp constructed at High Court
In a bid to ease the movement of physically challenged litigants, early this year, the Judiciary management, constructed a ramp at the High Court main building.
JLOS buildings to be PWD Compliancy
Speaking on behalf of the Justice Law and Order Sector secretariat, Edgar Kuhimbisa, the Information, Communications and Technology Officer, reveals that all the justice center buildings that are currently being built by JLOS, are PWD compliant.
In further showing steps taken to ease the access of justice by PWDs, Mr Kuhimbisa reveals that last year’s annual report on human rights, came along with a brailed version for the visually impaired people.
Dr Henry Peter Adonyo, Outgoing executive director of the Judicial Training Institute
“It has been observed over time that this PWDs require special attention not only in the general sphere of life but even when they come before our courts. It was therefore found necessary that a legal regime be put in place that would cater for their special needs when before judicial Officers.”
Harriet Hatanga, Mukono Chief Magistrate
“When a case involving a litigant with a physical disability comes up, I conduct the court proceedings from outside the courtroom, preferably in the compound. This is to minimise the discomfort that the PWDs would encounter while trying to get access to the court rooms”