By Steven Candia
A national legal aid policy which makes it incumbent upon government to provide free legal service is in the offing to enhance the enjoyment of pro bono services and extend justice to the poor.
It also emerged that a national legal aid service Bill which among other things will provide for sanctions with regard to the quality of free legal aid offered is also in the offing as part of the wider legal reforms to guarantee and expand the enjoyment of free legal services in the country.
Speaking at the opening of the second national legal aid conference, Justice Henry Adonyo of the Commercial Division of the High Court said the provision of legal aid service is a constitutional obligation and that the policy is now before cabinet.
The two day conference is organized by the Justice Centers Uganda (JCU) in partnership with the Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) with support from Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a multi donor facility of development partners.
Other than seeking to strengthen existing pro poor initiatives, the conference attended by top officials from the Judiciary, members of the diplomatic corps, members of parliament, academics and both state and none state actors such as civil society organizations (CSOs) seeks to address the major policy gaps, regulatory challenges and practical limitations of achieving of legal aid priorities.
“In 2012 there was consensus on the need to evolve a national legal aid policy which would give effect to the constitutional provision,” Adonyo the convener of the conference said at the Imperial Royale Hotel.
Speaking at the same function the British High Commissioner to Uganda Alison Blackburne hailed the government for the reforms, noting that the National Legal Aid Bill is soon being tabled before parliament, noting the demand for legal aid services in Uganda is high.
“This is an encouraging development. Once the legislation is in place, the DGF will be able to consider further support in this important area. The Acting Chief Justice Steven Kavuma decried the absence of an enabling legal framework for legal aid in the country.
“To date however there is no comprehensive law and policy on legal aid services in Uganda,” Kavuma said adding that there is need to make the judiciary accessible.
“We need to deliberately take steps to remove the picture that the justice law and order sector institutions are intimidating. That picture must be changed because people are afraid and worried about going to court,” Kavuma said.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference Professor Christopher Mbazira of the Public Interest Law Clinic (PILAC) and a lecturer at Makerere University said presently government had not done much to support legal aid service in the country, leaving most of the responsibility on none state actors to shoulder such as CSOs.
“The challenge is that the state has not invested in the provision of a comprehensive legal aid services in accordance with international obligations,” he said noting that most of government support has been with regard to criminal matters.
“Government support does not extend to civil matters and the quality of state briefs is questionable,” he said but expressed optimism that the situation may change once the legal reforms are in place.
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Policy on free legal service in the offing