The Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) has been at the forefront of reforming Uganda’s justice system since its inception in 1999. Nineteen years on, the achievements, milestones and success stories are visible, challenges notwithstanding. From reforms in commercial justice to the good legislative and policy environment, unprecedented infrastructure development (construction of numerous justice centres across the country) to award-winning innovations and initiatives (small claims procedures, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, sentencing guidelines, plea bargaining, etc,) – the sector is on course in its bid to create a pro-people justice system in Uganda.
It is, however, important to further examine how “pro-people” the workings of the sector are. Pro-people in this context is that JLOS has over the years strived to champion the cause of the vulnerable, the poor and generally those who are disadvantaged in different ways – financially, socially and even physically.
So how pro-people has JLOS been or actually is? In recognition of the challenges experienced by small business owners in Uganda, there are now mechanisms (small claims procedures) in the Judiciary to resolve commercial disputes involving amounts of less than Shs10m. This means that there are now simple and quick mechanisms for a trader in Kikuubo to seek legal redress in the event of a financial dispute with another party.
A girl-child or juvenile in Kalisizo, who has been defiled can be legally and psychologically assisted – thanks to the Justice for Children Programme (J4C) being implemented with support from UNICEF. An indigent widow in Lira is now legally empowered to inherit property without fear of it being grabbed by selfish individuals – all because of the legal aid (free) services offered by Justice Centres Uganda (a project of the JLOS Sector supported by the Democratic Governance Facility) across the country. With the numerous Justice Centres spread across the country, physical access to justice has been greatly improved.
The concept of a justice centre is that a police station, the office of the DPP (Resident State Attorney) and the court exist in very close proximity (as a complex/one-stop centre) to reduce the time it takes for users to move from one entity to another. Therefore, an old man from Nyakigera village does not have to walk miles upon miles from a police station (reporting a case) to a court (hearing of the case). All these services and more are contained in one single complex at Isingiro Justice Centre opened in 2014.
During my recent visit to this justice centre, I was excited about the level of coordination between the various district players on matters of justice and the rule of law. The Isingiro District Chain-linked Committee (another innovation of the sector) meeting held during my visit was a true embodiment of communication, coordination and coordination between JLOS institutions that should be emulated across government. What was most interesting was the active participation of locals and their leaders (religious and political). I left with a renewed belief in our systems amid all the challenges that are well known.
With considerable investments in physical infrastructure (“hardware”), JLOS is steadily addressing issues of service delivery, human capacity, customer care, integrity and accountability (the “software” components). A recent report titled ‘Justice Needs in Uganda’ authored by the Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law (HiiL) provides insights into the day-to-day justice needs of ordinary Ugandans. The findings of this report also point to various solutions that can make our justice system function better.
For example, there is need for JLOS to come up with innovations that ensure access to information for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) at an affordable cost through availability of legal information. This will drive local business to increased productivity. We also need to empower users of our justice system with the means to solve disputes with minimal contact with JLOS institutions through use of technology (self-service options). The JLOS should also be supported to empower traditional/informal justice systems with the means to decongest State (formal) institutions.
On this issue in particular, we can pick lessons from the Primary Healthcare system, where patients are first treated at lower-level healthcare centres (by paramedics) with complicated cases pushed upward the chain to hospitals through referrals. Maybe it is high time the JLOS sector came up with “Primary Legal Care” (PLC) to address various issues of access to justice in Uganda.
The local council courts and our traditional systems (clans) modelled on our traditions and beliefs can be a very interesting platforms to advance this aforementioned “Primary Legal Care” cause. All we need is the goodwill of all stakeholders, but most importantly strategies and protocols that will provide the architecture for PLC (for example how “diagnosis” to a legal question or situation is executed and how justice is dispensed et cetera). Why local council courts? Because LCCs, especially at LC1 level, are accessible to the ordinary people and have the capacity to deliver justice (especially on family and land matters) quickly particularly for the vulnerable people. This also calls for collaboration between the formal and informal justice systems.
Thanks to Local Council elections held this year, the Justice, Law and Order Sector is already leading efforts to strengthen capacity of local council courts in partnership with the Ministry of Local Government. It is therefore fair to say that JLOS’ position as a unifying factor of 18 government institutions with shared mandates and objectives gives it the legitimacy to make justice for all a reality for all Ugandans.
Mr Kuhimbisa is the information, communications and technology officer at the Justice, Law and Order Sector Secretariat. [email protected]