A study conducted by the Legal Aid Forum in 2017 indicates that the biggest challenge for most Rwandans seeking justice is the distance that they have to travel to access legal aid providers.
The study, which sought to get the citizen perception of justice and legal services in Rwanda indicates that to-date legal aid service seekers and providers countrywide, mostly rely on face-to-face consultations.
The study indicates that 27 per cent of the respondents had to walk between 30 minutes to one hour to reach the nearest legal aid provider; another 16 per cent were subjected to walking between one and three hours.
Approximately three per cent of the respondents had to travel for more than five hours.
For more vulnerable and needy legal aid service seekers, the situation is even worse. Travelling long distances requires that they forego working to earn their daily income on the day of travel.
At the same time, the travels also require that they spend money on transportation fees.
Finding solutions in ICT
While the most common recommendation from respondents was that legal aid providers set up offices closer to their communities, the logistics involved and the budgetary constraints make the fruition of this challenging.
So, how else could this issue be fixed?
As of June 2020, the mobile phone penetration in Rwanda stood at 77.9 per cent which is equivalent to slightly over nine million active mobile telephone subscriptions
Similarly, the overall internet penetration in Rwanda is at 49.5 per cent whilst 17 per cent of households had access to the internet at home as of 2016/17.
Armed with these numbers, the Legal Aid Forum, which brings together almost 40 civil society organisations, started working with international telecommunication company Viamo, where those seeking legal aid use the 845 shortcode which is available in audio and text format.
When someone seeking legal aid calls this code, they are registered and entered into a call list for the Legal Aid Forum call centre. The lawyers will then call back with advice or will refer the case to the right legal aid providers.
Where it is deemed necessary, the caller is provided with free legal assistance and representation by the Legal Aid Forum and Rwanda Bar Association.
The channels also provide information on legal matters, all contributing to legal education and awareness, advice and assistance for particular cases.
The Executive Director of the Legal Aid Forum Andrews Kananga told The New Times in an interview that the code was introduced to save time and money for vulnerable Rwandans seeking legal assistance.
“You are dealing with people who are desperately seeking justice but have no means or no money. This service was introduced to mitigate those challenges while at the same time educating Rwandans about their own laws,” he said.
While legal messages were accessed to a tune of 1.5 million times by 501,989 people seeking legal advice between 2018 and 2020, the bulk of the enquiries go to the enforcement of judgements which take 42 per cent, gender-based violence and child rights at 27 per cent, succession and family at 10 per cent, land and expropriation at seven per cent and employment justice at 2 per cent.
So far, 39.9 per cent Rwandans have used the code to make inquiries about GBV and child rights, 23.8 per cent about succession laws, and 15 per cent about land expropriation.
In terms of provinces, the Eastern Province takes the lead with 27.7 per cent interest in using the code followed by Kigali with 23.4 per cent, Northern 18.3 per cent, Southern 16.9 per cent and Western at 13.7 per cent.
For example, between August 2018 and June 2020, the Legal Aid Forum has provided legal education and awareness to more than 1.4 million beneficiaries through mobile phone communications.
Women still lag behind
Although this service is available to everyone, women still lag behind in taking advantage of what it offers.
This is partly attributed to the fact that men are economically more empowered than women and more men than women own mobile phones.
Cressence Mukantabana, the founder of Poor Women Development Network, says that financial constraints are one of the biggest factors that deter women’s efforts in accessing justice.
“The increase in court fees is another issue before it was around Rwf 5, 000 but now it’s Rwf 25, 000. It’s hard for some women to get that amount and that is why some decide to leave cases unreported,” she says.
Mukantabana also points out that some women who are not in Ubudehe 1 and 2 poverty level categories cannot access the services of a free lawyer and that this can be limiting in a way for those who cannot afford attorney fees.
The Head of the Access to Justice Department at the Ministry of Justice Martine Urujeni says that the opportunity to use technology has given many people an opportunity to have their issues fixed without them leaving the comfort of their homes.
“We offer legal aid services but we are sometimes not able to help everyone at the same time. Depending on the nature of the case, we sometimes refer them to our partners and calling this Legal Aid Forum number has helped many,” she said.
She pointed out that while the Ministry is obliged to prioritise people who fall under Categories One and Two of Ubudehe Social Classification, the Legal Aid Forum, through such services, opens its doors to anyone based on their issue.
Culled from Newtimes