Rwanda: Citizens' Access to Free Legal Services in Jeopardy

The prospects of having a legal aid law are the subject of prolonged debate with the government citing financial constraints, putting citizens' access to pro bono legal services at risk.

The law would determine who qualifies for free legal advice, assistance, representation, education, and mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution in criminal cases.

The State Minister of Justice in Charge of Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, told The New Times that although there's no law in place, there's a policy to provide guidelines for access to pro bono legal services.

Currently, Uwizeyimana said that while the Ministry has some funds to provide legal aid, in some cases, discussions to determine the beneficiaries are ongoing in order to avoid the overwhelming numbers that can possibly stem from putting a law in place.

"There are people who don't rush to court because they know that it comes with costs. The moment you make it a law, it becomes a right and someone can easily drag you to court if you don't deliver. For you to deliver, you must have a really big budget which we don't have right now," he said.

According to the 2014 Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems in Africa, which Rwanda is signatory to, legal aid is more than representation by a lawyer in a court.

The meaning is broadened to include legal advice, assistance, representation, education, and mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution.

The Executive Director of the Legal Aid Forum, Andrews Kananga told The New Times that since discussions on the draft legal aid law more than a year ago, there have been no new developments.

Not convincing

The Legal Aid Forum is a non-governmental organisation bringing together 36 national and international organizations that provide or support legal aid services to the country's poor and vulnerable population.

Kananga said that the excuse of financial constraints, often cited by the government is not convincing enough.

"Our assessment is that if all laws depended on budgets, we would not have any in place. There is always a cost to anything you do so citing budget as an issue is not convincing at all," he said.

He, however, agreed that legal aid cannot go to everyone but the government should learn from other countries' processes.

"In other countries, you do what we call a mean test. You don't give to everyone who comes asking. The policy stipulates that there is a legal aid committee which is in charge of assessing every application so that they can determine the urgency, need and financial need," he said.

The President of the Rwanda Bar Association, Julien- Gustave Kavaruganda, says that more and more cases continue to come up, which emphasises the need for the law.

"We are in discussion with the ministry of justice. Even if there is no law yet, there should be guidelines and a budget," he said. "They accept this in principle but they also have to discuss this with the Ministry of finance. In the revised budget in January, it can be revisited because we have cases that continue to come up that show us that we need this law more and more."

Of 193 countries, less than 50 have a legal aid law.

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