Game still on? When is it too late to call your lawyer?

Author: Gawaya Tegulle. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

  • Every Ugandan family ought to have a lawyer who advises them on everything they do.   

Of course, the fox must first be chased away, and then the hen warned against wandering into the bush all alone. But when certain things become very common, such a pattern merits a war cry! When you see rabbits casually sauntering into caves that leopards look at and hesitate, there is a problem.

No proper criminal defence attorney will dare defend himself in criminal court; they know the perils of such bravery only too well. They know that judicial officers may look simple, (some actually look perfectly harmless) yet by the stroke of a pen, in the twinkling of an eye, your life can be almost permanently redefined by being sent to prison.

The lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client! Take Isaac Ssemakadde – one of the most brilliant lawyers in town: never far from trouble, yet you will never catch him trying to defend himself. But thousands of non-lawyers feel comfortable walking into criminal court to defend themselves. Unbelievable!

Recently, I got an emergency call from someone who badly needed a lawyer for a family member. I asked one question: is he in jail? Yes, he was in jail; enjoying the hospitality of our good old Dr Johnson Byabashaija. Oh, that’s the commissioner general of Prisons. Turns out my new client had represented himself (it’s allowed). He had been convicted and was now awaiting sentencing. Is it too late to call a lawyer in that situation? Good news is, no! Just because you have been convicted doesn’t mean you must end up in jail.

In fact, that story had a good ending and as I speak, my client must be munching on a sandwich at a Café Javas somewhere. So in theory, it is never too late to call your lawyer. But thing is, if you involve a lawyer from the word go, you spend less on legal services, and you spare yourself a lot of unnecessary trouble. Most of the people in Uganda’s jails are there because they didn’t use a lawyer from the beginning.

And even in civil court, most cases (especially land) get there because they began with a transaction where somebody felt they didn’t need a lawyer. But see, Ugandans are used to self-medicating; swallowing Panadol or Hedex at the first sign of headache, magnesium or metronidazole for stomach ache and Coartem when they feel feverish – without consulting a doctor!

They only go to the doctor when they are about to die. So in the same way, they want to walk into a police station without a lawyer! Read my lips: you are free to walk into a police station day or night, but you only walk out if they don’t want to keep you in!

Uganda now has thousands of advocates, spread out in every town. Every Ugandan family ought to have a lawyer who advises them on everything they do. It shows you are enlightened and serious with life. Open a file with a law firm near you, consult them regularly so you stay out of trouble.

Don’t try to be clever: when iron sheets find their way into your compound, uninvited, talk to your lawyer. When government monies are coming to your account, unbeknownst to you, talk to your lawyer. Before taking a bribe, talk to your lawyer. And please, never lie to your lawyer in such times.

If in trouble and you can’t afford a lawyer, seek free legal services. Apply to Justice Centres – which can be found at nearly every court. Call the Uganda Law Society, FIDA, Legal Aid Service Providers Network, Public Interest Law Clinic (at Makerere University Faculty of Law), Uganda Muslim Lawyers Association, Uganda Christian Lawyers Fraternity, etc.

Caution: Every area of law is a sea on its own, so it is unusual to find a lawyer good in every area of law. Lawyers get the same basic training, but after that they disperse into various areas of interest where they will become experts because they get further training in those areas, and spend years doing the same thing over and over, till it becomes second nature.

So not all lawyers and law firms are the same. Just like not all doctors are the same – you don’t want to undergo heart surgery in a dental clinic.

Mr Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda     [email protected]