25 June 2018

Rwanda Bar Association Pushes for Legal Aid Law

The Rwanda Bar Association (RBA); the umbrella organisation of practicing lawyers in the country is pushing the government to bring the legal aid draft law back on the table for fresh debate by parliament.

The Executive Secretary of the bar; Victor Mugabe told The New Times in a telephone interview last week that the draft law was last discussed in 2015 and since then, it has been shelved.

"The last time we discussed that draft was in 2015 and we agreed with the Ministry of Justice on the final draft. It however hit a snag when it got to parliament," he said.

According to Mugabe, though the government says that the issue behind the stalling of the law is budget, the amount that the government is already spending along these lines is enough to finance those seeking legal aid.

"We would like government to resubmit the draft to the parliament because this can't be about the budget since they are already spending a lot of money that they give to the bar association for legal aid, the money that they spend on MAJ and more. We already have an established legal aid fund in which all this money from government and donors can be channeled so that those who seek help can be guided," he said.

MAJ are legal aid offices established by government in all districts to help indigent Rwandans with legal assistance.

Mugabe insists that the RBA was already capable of assessing the merit of someone who was in need of legal aid because there was already a structure.

Blocked by budget

However, in a telephone interview, the Minister of Justice, Johnston Busingye said that the draft had been recalled because some articles needed to be revised emphasising that the issues tied in with budgetary constraints.

"When we took this draft to the parliament, we were asked where the money to finance this idea would come from and we didn't have answers. We decided to go back to the drawing board and discuss with ministries of finance and local government so that we could come up with a workable solution," he said.

Busingye said that on further scrutiny, there was a realisation that more than Rfw1bn would be required to finance the cases that would fall under the legal aid bracket if the law was passed.

"If you put a law in place, then it becomes a right and right now, we cannot afford it. We decided to continue applying the policy where anyone who can't afford it can be given legal aid. We try as much as possible to prioritise cases of Gender Based Violence, women, children and others but our basic legal aid is mostly at grassroots level with Abunzi and it's free," he said.

He explained that at the time the draft went to parliament, the budget for legal aid stood between Rfw40m and Rfw50m but has since almost tripled.

Busingye explained that right now, the country is relying on a policy which seeks to serve the vulnerable while at the same time protect the government from lawsuits.

"If we had 100,000 cases in a year, we would need ten times the amount that the Ministry of Finance gives us. Currently, the budget for legal aid is Rfw140m. What we require now is in billions and the government just can't afford it. We can do our best but in the process no one can sue us for failing to deliver what we didn't promise," he said.

The Head of the department of International Justice and Judicial Cooperation at the Ministry of Justice; Providence Umurungi, told stakeholders discussing the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) last week that it would take time before the law came back on the discussion table.

"There are some of these articles that are sensitive but they are being considered. The draft is already done and what remains is to agree and maybe the next year, it can take more time," she said.

Of 193 countries, less than 40 have a legal aid law.

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