AUGUST 9, 2010: The Poor are Entitled to Legal Protection

The Poor are Entitled to Legal Protection

SOURCE: New Vision

Kampala — Recently, when I saw a TV news item about lawyers planning to provide legal aid to poor people, I could not help exclaiming: "At last!"

Many poor and uneducated Ugandans or those who are ignorant about the law, are languishing in jails and prisons. Some know not how to appeal the sentences imposed on them. Some do not even have an idea where, or who to approach, to challenge some aspect of the law that put them behind bars. Some do not even know whether or not they have any rights, others simply do not care.

Many simply resign themselves to the knowledge that as suspects or convicts they are in the category of the "least favoured people" in society. No wonder our jails are full of chicken thieves and others accused of petty offenses because they cannot afford the high cost of legal counsel. To the contrary, many individuals facing felony (serious crimes) often go scot-free largely because of their capacity to get lawyers to defend them.

Such is the highly anomalous situation that the announced plans for legal aid by local lawyers must try to remedy. All citizens deserve equal protection of the law. That suggests that learned members of society have a civic duty and responsibility to provide enlightened civilian leadership and guidance.

Effective legal aid to the poor and ignorant can be useful in Uganda in a number of ways. It is important to advise suspects against self-incrimination. Lawyers should educate Ugandans on their rights to remain silent if arrested. If a confession is punched out of a suspect, say in a police station, lawyers providing legal aid should fight to have that evidence quashed.

There is also the issue of speedy trial. Again, our remand jails are full of offenders who languish there for months, perhaps years, without appearing in court.

Sometimes files take too long to reach the office of the Director of Public Prosecution as police investigators drag their feet. And frequently, the courts have a backlog of cases. Lawyers must become more vigilant. They should scrutinise Police and jail records and raise an alarm if anyone is not appearing before a magistrate as rapidly as the law demands.

Lawyers should make noise on the conditions prevailing in our jails as well. Many of the facilities for correctional purposes are not there. Retribution - not rehabilitation - seems to be high on their agenda.

Sometimes, the magnitude of the punishment is not proportional to the offence. Legal aid to the poor can redress this. A society that respects its citizens knows that even the "least favoured" of them needs decent treatment. It is universally held that the Apartheid system in South Africa was evil.

Everyone knows about the cruelty that Apartheid meted out on Nelson Mandela by keeping him in jail for a mind-boggling 27 years. But what is not commonly talked about is the fact that when finally Mandela was allowed to walk out of jail - holding hands with Winnie - to freedom, he needed about 27 huge boxes and a truck to cart away books that his evil captors allowed him to read.

So if you hear Mandela's measured voice and clever words, know that the evil Apartheid system contributed to the distinctly erudite and iconic posture Mandela exudes, partly as a result of the hundreds of books he was allowed to read in those 27 years of incarceration.

It is the same case with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. That tenacious old man would probably not be as resilient as he is today if he was not given the opportunity to acquire several degrees while serving jail term. The notion of equal protection before the law must be encouraged and nurtured in our society.

Local lawyers - because of their knowledge of not only the law, but also our unique situation as a nation - must lead us in that direction. Women lawyers, through FIDA, are already showing the rest of the legal fraternity what can be done to defend the poor and "weak' members of society.

I say to FIDA and other lawyers: Spread the good work to society at large.

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