Snapshots from our twins: Victoria and Dennis
In 2016 and 2017, two sets of law students at King’s College London partnered with law students from the Uganda Christian University just outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala, for an exchange of experiences. The aim was to facilitate a cross-cultural dialogue, exploring the differences and similarities in legal education and legal practice in the students’ home countries. To kick off the new academic year, we are looking back on what they learned from each other.
Students were asked to consider the concept of access to justice.
What is it like to try to access justice in your country? What barriers do you face? What impact does an increased access to justice have on the alleviation of poverty?
In this, the second of two instalments, Victoria and Denis consider access to justice in Singapore, the UK, and Uganda, with a focus on how legal services are made available to society’s most vulnerable members.
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed since coming to the UK is the difference in public approach to access to justice.
In Singapore, pro bono work is mainly organised by the Pro Bono Society, which is an arm of the Law Society. The Pro Bono Society organises legal clinics, where people could get free legal advice from volunteer lawyers. Then, those who met a strict financial requirement could get free representation, if their case progressed to court. There are always volunteers because all lawyers in Singapore are required to fulfil an annual quota of pro bono hours.
However, access to justice is quite different in the UK. In the UK, there are law centres that focus on providing legal services to low-income and vulnerable people in specific areas of law (e.g. welfare benefits, housing, immigration) through legal aid. In addition, there are advice centres and non-profit organisations that specialise in legal advice or representation for specific areas (e.g. children). Also, rather than recruiting volunteers through a Pro Bono Society, clients can be represented by firms that take legal aid.
Beyond the structural differences, the entire approach to access to justice is different. In Singapore, the government focuses on availability of one-off legal advice or representation in court. Help in specific areas of law is provided primarily by private non-profit organisations. In the UK, access to justice encompasses not only legal representation and advice, but ensuring that the client has access to all legal remedies. This includes simpler but more time-consuming services such as helping the client appeal a welfare benefit decision or making information on legal procedures available online.
Regardless, ensuring all people are not limited from exercising their legal rights by their socio-economic status seems to be a priority, leading to a more systemic support for all areas of law that vulnerable people may encounter, rather than leaving such issues for private organisations to cover.
Is there a similar system in Uganda? Or is it more like the system in Singapore? Which do you think is better? What do you think access to justice means in practical terms?
Access to justice in Uganda is similar to that of Singapore. The law regulating advocates require every advocate to contribute a certain number of hours to pro bono work or if he cannot, pay a specific fee to the Uganda Law Society which runs pro-bono legal clinics across the country.
There are other legal aid organisations that provide legal services to the disadvantaged. We also have special interest NGOs such as those for women and those for the PWDs that provide legal services, including legal representation to members of those particular groups. In criminal matters, the constitution obliges the state to pay for legal representation to those accused of capital offenses if they cannot afford to pay individually for defense counsel. We also have volunteers called paralegals that help those on remand especially educating them on their rights and other subjects such as plea-bargaining.
What may be different is that we have what is called public interest litigation where an organisation or an individual petitions the court that certain acts or laws or omissions are contrary to law and once they succeed, the decision benefits a larger section of society. This form of litigation has been used to ameliorate inequalities between men and women and laws that create these inequalities have been annulled by court. So because of this legal device, women too can inherit property, grounds for divorce are no longer unfair for women, public buildings are required to provide means of access by PWDs etc.
The judiciary has also come up with other innovative options such as small claims procedure where claims of less than $2800 can be handled expeditiously by a magistrate without the need for legal representation. This is under pilot study and will be rolled out soon. Plea bargaining too has been incorporated in the criminal justice system to ensure that justice is served timely.
Another difference could be the low coverage due to the disparities in economic conditions of the two countries. Uganda being a highly-populated country but economically weak, not everyone gets a chance to get access to these free legal services. Private legal services are quite expensive and only a few can afford to hire an advocate. This makes it difficult for the majority to access justice.
Regarding the question as to which one is better, I think that each system is better suited to the unique needs of the country but also to its level of socio-economic development. However, I see a lot of similarities between Uganda and Singapore.