Access to justice is decribed as a fundamental right, as well as a key means to defend other rights. For justice to be real, it has to be available, affordable and accessible to all.
Therefore, availability and accessibility of institutions (whether formal or informal) both in terms of facilities and human resource is crucial to empower the people to realize and protect their human rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda and other international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966) to which Uganda is signatory.
In observance of its international obligations, the 1995 Constitution guarantees access to justice under various articles. As undertaken, it is no doubt the state is making strides in setting up structures and facilities to fulfill its obligations under the Constitution and covenants.
The Daily Monitor recently revealed that the Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, Major General Kahinda Otafiire, had signed a statutory instrument of 2017 expanding magisterial areas across the country from about 150 chief and grade one operating magisterial areas to over 316 magisterial areas. No doubt this is a step in the right direction.
This move is welcome especially for previously disadvantaged areas that we, as an organization working to support the vulnerable and marginalized, have for so long advocated – that courts should be established in order to bring services to the most vulnerable and poor persons.
Such areas include Pader and Agago districts that were ravaged during the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency and are really in need of a chief magisterial
The community in Pader has for long been in dire state and one had to travel to Kitgum to access the chief magistrate’s court, which is a distance of over 60km, while those from Agago have had to travel about 100km.
The distance to court is not only long but also challenging in terms of road infrastructure, meaning when it rained, such roads were impassable. For long, the people, especially the most poor and vulnerable, have trekked distances in search of justice, and with the continuing challenges of case backlog, many of their cases would remain unresolved for years in the system.
This would leave many impoverished and others would be forced to abandon the course of justice as it became a luxury on their side. We are thus cognizant that the new magisterial areas are a great relief to the judiciary as well as a step in the right direction in bringing justice closer to the people. This will go a long way in enhancing justice to the vulnerable and protecting the rights of the community.
This is one way of restoring judicial trust and confidence which was dwindling with communities preferring local structures of administration like the local council courts, and yet there are matters whose jurisdiction is above such courts and will in no way get resolved unless brought to the formal justice system.
With the first step out of the way, the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and the judiciary still have another hurdle to cross which is to fast-track financial and human resources to make functional the newly created service points.
There is need to provide resources so that the new courts of law don’t become ghost structures. There is need for infrastructure in form of courtrooms and accommodation for judicial officers as well as other support arms like the directorate of public prosecutions.
Some of these places are hard to reach; therefore, the officers should be motivated with befitting means of trans- port, accommodation, court tools and many other aspects to enable them calmly dispense justice.
While we applaud the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and the judiciary for hearing and responding to the cries of many, we are like Oliver Twist, asking for more.
The passing of the Administration of Justice Bill into law, the legal aid policy and law, equipping and resourcing will be additions in consolidating the gains. Justice is not a need, but a right; it is a prerequisite for the rule of law and security of persons and thus one of the enablers for economic development. We cannot achieve Vision 2040 without empowering all to realize their rights.
The author is an advocate and executive director at Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET).