• Francis Obonyo
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Understanding the National Legal Aid Bill, 2019

Introduction

An Act to consolidate, update, and modernize the law on legal aid in Uganda; to codify Government’s obligation in relation to the provision of legal aid to indigent or vulnerable persons; to create Justice Centres Uganda and designate them as the government agency responsible for providing legal aid on behalf of Government; repeal the Poor Persons Defence Act; to make provision for the grant of legal aid services to indigent and vulnerable persons; to make provision for eligibility for the grant of legal aid, to make provision for the termination of legal aid; to make provision for the payment of court fees, costs and damages by an aided person and for other related matters.

Highlights of the bills

The Bill seeks to facilitate access to legal representation for indigent and vulnerable persons by;-

  • expanding the meaning of legal aid beyond merely providing counsel;
  • designating the Justice Centres of Justice as the Government entity that is responsible for the provision of legal aid on behalf of the state;
  • imposing an obligation on the Government to provide legal aid to indigent or vulnerable persons;
  • prescribing the procedure for accessing legal aid to persons entitled to legal aid according to Article 28 (3) of the Constitution.
  • imposing a criteria for providing legal aid by Government and the accredited legal aid service providers;

Key Issues and analysis

The laws governing access to and the provision of legal aid in Uganda include the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995, the Poor Persons Defence Act Cap 20, the Civil Procedure Act, Cap 71, the Children Act, Cap 59, the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2006, the Refugee Act, 2006, the Criminal Procedure Code, Act and the Advocates Act. These are supplemented by international legal instruments Uganda has acceded to including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 African Charter on Human and People Rights, 1981 and other non-binding instruments such as the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, 2012.

Whereas the right to free legal assistance to socially and economically disadvantaged people is recognized under the laws of Uganda and various international human rights instruments acceded to by Uganda, there is no legal framework to effectively coordinate and sustainably streamline the provision of Legal aid services to indigent and vulnerable persons in Uganda.

Apart from Article 28 (3) of the Constitution which entitles a person charged with an offence carrying a sentence of death or imprisonment for life to free legal aid provided by Government, there is lack of a clear government policy on access to legal aid by indigent or vulnerable persons beyond what the Constitution guarantees. Considering that the Government is not under any legal obligation to provide legal aid to any other person in Uganda, this has negatively affected access to justice, especially among the indigent and vulnerable members of society.

Conclusion

Other legal instruments in Uganda, such as the Poor Persons Defense Act Cap 20 are limited in scope and are not up to date with the international best practices as expressed in various international legal instruments.

Therefore, the Bill seeks to consolidate, update, and modernize the law on legal aid in Uganda and codify Government’s obligation to provide legal aid to indigent or vulnerable persons.