The Uganda Law Society (ULS), a body that brings together lawyers in the country, has variously been described as an elite group of lawyers whose only objective is to fleece unsuspecting members of the public in the guise of offering them legal services.
In an interview, the president of ULS, Pheona Nabasa Wall disputed this view and explained to us some of the challenges they face including lawyers who are being persecuted and prosecuted for doing their work, unethical conduct, and lawyers trying to politicise the society among others. Excerpts below.
Lawyers are perceived as crooks in the public. What are you doing to change this image?
We have two problems that I would like to explain. We have people that have studied some law, maybe they have done an undergraduate diploma in law or maybe they have done a law degree but are not advocates.
Those people, because they are not regulated by the law council, are often in dirty dealings after they pretend to be advocates and then they reach somewhere in the process of their work then they don’t finish their work because they are not actually advocates.
That’s is why recently the court said that you have to present a Practicing Certificate before your case can go on.
Are these the lawyers who are known to disappear with clients money?
These are the people who behave badly with client’s money because they know no one will hold them accountable. First of all, I would like to call upon the general public to insist that a lawyer shows you his/her practicing certificate so that you are able to know that you are dealing with an advocate.
The second thing that causes problems sometime is that of course every profession has some elements that are criminal. There are some elements that are unethical and on that issue, we are now strengthening our ethics and disciplinary committee as the law society.
We also have the law council that disciplines lawyers. In case you have lawyers who have stolen your money you can always report them. I want to assure the general public that advocates are accountable to the law council that is highly regulated and if you have a problem please complain to the law council.
How have you helped these young lawyers to overcome such temptations?
We are training our young lawyers to make them understand and separate between normal transaction and illicit financial flows. We are also training lawyers to learn to avoid temptations because careers are lifetime achievements.
We are calling upon the public to stop calling us crooks when they expect us to do shady things.They should expect us to be straight and also listen to advice.
Why is ULS quiet about the ongoing abductions and illegal arrests of innocent Ugandans?
That is a lie, we are not very quiet. We have released five statements since Christmas about this issue. We event created rapid response team to handle these issues. We call upon the general public to give us information and to bring to us complainants of the family of the people who have disappeared.
We only got five families and we have worked on those five cases. When the government said they had 177 people, we released an ultimatum and said that this week we are going to go to court and as I speak, we have prepared all our documents.
My problem is that I don’t have any instruction from any family member and you know as a lawyer, you should not start a case without instructions.
It is absurd that disappearances are happening. We are due to meet the police but we still call upon the security agencies to ensure that due process is followed when anyone is arrested.
There is a feeling that you are not as visible as your predecessors in the public, what could be the problem?
What can I do about that feeling? I can only work. Yes I can only work because they say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. We can only work on the deliverables. We have serious deliverables as Uganda Law Society. We have a legal aid project in 23 towns in Uganda.
You saw our pro-bono day last year despite Covid-19, we are still serving about 65,000 people. We are currently representing 10% of Uganda’s total prison population which is about 5,500 prisoners. We have pro-bono lawyers that are registered and are working as we speak.
What challenges have you faced so far as the president of ULS?
I think the challenge we have faced is calling people to come for help and they don’t come. For instance the families of the people who disappeared.
We called them to come so that we do some litigation for them but they did not come. The five families who came we helped them. The challenge has been getting information to reach the people that need help.
The second challenge is people try to politicise the ULS and try to use it to fight their political wars. We are very determined to serve the country.
Our primary role is to advise in the rule of law, good governance, to increase justice to everybody. We also look at members’ welfare and the professional development and the last thing is that we look at is being the champion of the rule of law.
These are the things we are committed to do and we shall continue doing this work.
We have witnessed the arbitrary arrests, detention and prosecution of advocates in the line of their duty.
This one we have been really fighting it. If you remember in December, we had three lawyers who were arrested and we fought for them. We have had several meetings with security forces and we have actually worked out a way and I am happy that these days they give us notice. I think you have seen us fight for other lawyers like Nicholas Opiyo.
The Advocates Act protects us in our work and also we have a good legal decision that came out of court where the judge said that no lawyer should be prosecuted in the course of his or her duty.