West Budama North MP Fox Odoi has asked the Constitutional court to lift a ban on advertising for lawyers' services in Uganda.
Odoi's case rests on intriguing arguments that contest the constitutionality of an old tradition that bars lawyers from singing their own praises in order to get business.
If successful, the case could fundamentally change the course and tone of legal practice in Uganda. Legal advertising is banned under Section 74 (1) (f) of the Advocates Act, and Regulation 23(1) of the Advocates (Professional Conduct) Regulations.
The ban applies to both public sites and all forms of media. Lawyers are only allowed to use plates to indicate their chambers.
The punishments for noncompliance include a reprimand, suspension for two years, or payment of a fine imposed by the disciplinary committee of the Law Council. One can also be struck off the advocates roll.
The ban, still enforced in many Commonwealth countries, is based on a long tradition that a lawyer's good work and reputation will inevitably lead people to seek his or her services.
Odoi, a lawyer with 20 years' experience, says he has been subjected to a chilling, restrictive, unreasonable and unjustified ban contained in the Advocates Act and the regulations made under the act.
The former presidential legal aide says the ban outlaws the freedom of expression and speech enshrined in the Constitution. Through Akampumuza and Company Advocates, Odoi argues that the ban is inconsistent with Articles 1(3), 2(1) (2), 20(1) (2), 28(9) (10) (11), 29(1) (a), 40(2), 41, 43(1) (2) (c), 44(c) and 45 of the Constitution.
Odoi, who chairs Parliament's Rules, Discipline and Privileges committee, wants court to annul the 'gagging' provisions of the Advocates Act and regulations. Lawyers would then freely advertise their services, which may increase competition - as is the case with other professions such as hoteliers and educationalists.
In his affidavit, Odoi says the ban irregularly creates unfair advantage to law firms which ride on other factors to make their chambers known to the public and this is discriminatory and, engenders monopoly. The ban, he argues, also suppresses information on available specialties.
To support his argument, Odoi says the archaic ban on lawyers advertising their legal services were long removed from laws of modern democratic societies like USA, UK and most recently, the neighbouring Kenya.
In the USA, a ban on advertising was declared unconstitutional in the popular case of Bates Vs State Bar of Arizona. The US Supreme court ruled that advertising allowed consumers to seek legal services to make an informed choice, the cornerstone of a free and just society.
In Kenya, the High court lifted the ban last year. Here, court noted that a complete ban on advertising undermined the right to access justice and was, therefore, a violation of that right.
"Denying us [lawyers] to advertise our legal practice business, the Advocates Act and regulations made thereunder, denies us the opportunity to maximally market and run our businesses efficiently and effectively. They also deny us the opportunity to make the public know the services we have to offer every time they are in need of them," Odoi argues.
In addition to lifting the 'unconstitutional' ban, Odoi wants court to order government to compensate him for income lost because of the arbitrary, oppressive and unconstitutional legislation. He argues that he lost prospective income so far valued at Shs 12bn due to the ban.
Isaac Bakayana, a city lawyer and lecturer at Makerere University, says if the ban is lifted, it is likely to create competition within the legal fraternity and improve the quality of services lawyers offer.
"Clients will be free to choose the best lawyers," he says.