Following the trend of events with the issues concerning access to justice by the poor, Uganda urgently needs active ‘barefoot’ lawyers – paralegals to empower the oppressed.
Absurd to read in the papers that the practicing lawyers have become too expensive for the poor to afford. Uganda’s laws are pro-poor on paper, but when it comes to administering justice, the intended beneficiaries are relegated.
The few who could afford to pay have lost confidence in our legal system because of some sort of ‘orders from above’ without any legal basis. Surprisingly, people are evicted from their land and properties without eviction order letters, the rich erecting buildings without building plans, arbitrary dismissal from work without compensation and the criminal justice is in shambles. Yet no efforts are taken by the good offices to reverse this trend.
This impunity has left the local people with no option but to take actions which they deem to be lawful or ought to be since it is not seen done or sadly protecting those who are supposed to face it. The increasing rate of mob justice, attack on law enforcement agents, community uprising to fight to protect their land and other properties among others did not come from blue. It is because they are legally powerless. They need to be empowered by local people who speak the legal language they understand.
Like the community health workers and crime Preventers, there is an urgent need to have community lawyers who live and understand the complexity of matters affecting the local people vis-a-vis the law. Paralegals, make the difficult legal concepts simpler and understandable even before people taking the law into their hands. They become part of the solution to the problems that requires attention. In short paralegals makes the law practically effective because the local people will not understand it from abstract.
This is the only tool that can bridge the local people with the law which affects them daily but don’t understand. If the local people cannot be empowered legally, to be able to make the use of the courts, petition administrative decisions and engage ombudsmen, then how can we boast that we are working for the good of the village people?
Needless to mention is that the current status of our legal system which is tilted to favor those in authority and with money, the law should readily be available in one’s language. That is what makes one patriotic and love his country. Today, Ugandans are detached from Uganda! To date, the constitution of most African countries Uganda inclusive remains in a single language which is very difficult for even the educated to understand yet it is the lifeline of all the laws in the country.
We cannot empower people to middle income class status if they don’t understand the legal implications of their actions. For instance, the unregulated and unexplained loan conditions set by the financial institutions and more especially the Medium & Small scale Enterprises like the SACCOS are at the detriment of the poor. Some of them end up signing out their land which provides their livelihood needs the ‘barefoot’ lawyers to simplify the terms and conditions of their rights and obligations.
Therefore, legally empowered community are more productive than those who think that the law is for certain status of people. Truly, there are classes of people, but the very purpose and objectives of the law is to bridge such classes. Legally empowered community expect little from outside because they work together to find solutions legally than violating it.
It however remains to be seen if the ministry concerned would look into making active paralegals as a resourceful tool to promote the rule of law or is comfortable with the current status quo.
S. Dradenya Amazia is a Journalist