Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | The Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) has petitioned Chief Justice Bart Katureebe to engage the President and make a case for recognition of legal services as essential service as well as allow emergency legal response during the lockdown.
The petition is signed by eleven Llegal aid service providers. These include the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), Network for Public Interest Lawyers (NETPIL), Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CEPIL), Chapter Four Uganda, Public Interest Law Clinic (PILAC), Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET) and others.
Lawyers were not listed among the essential categories of workers allowed to operate during the current COVID-19 lockdown which was announced as one of the measures to control the spread of coronavirus disease. Under the measures, the President issued directives including limitation on public movements, scaling down operations of institutions including courts and others.
Amid these measures, Uganda Radio Network-URN has in the past few weeks learnt that lawyers struggle to access courts in a bid to represent their clients with some trekking while others ride bicycles to courts.
Now the CSOs want the Chief Justice Katureebe to intervene and engage the Head of State on the inclusion of lawyers among the country’s essential workers and also provide mandatory legal representation or legal advice for accused persons prior to arraignment in court. They also demand that Katureebe prevails over judicial officers to uphold the right to fair hearing of cases within appropriate timelines and allow suspects exercise their constitutional right to bail.
Dr Sylvia Namubiru Mukasa, the Chief Executive Director of LASPNET says that they are deeply concerned about the increasing human rights violations and abuses which justify the need to consider legal services as essential services amidst the ongoing lockdown.
She says that the failure to hear bail applications and other matters would also worsen the situation. Namubiru says that there are many people with a right to apply for bail but in the absence of legal advice and representation, these can’t and continue to languish in jail.
LASPNET also notes the recent violent scenes captured in media reports of the Local Defence Unit (LDU) officers beating up citizens. Dr Namubiru says that in the absence of means for victims to pursue legal remedy during the lockdown where legal services are not operational, there is a projection of registering more gross human rights abuses and impunity due to the absence of a conducive environment that allows legal services to thrive.
She said that lawyers are essential service providers who act as watchdogs for rule of law and human rights compliance.
The CSOs appealed to Uganda’s judicial system to benchmark from different jurisdictions like Kenya where Court held legal services as essential under the COVID-19 lockdown.
They also recommended that the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) responds to human rights abuses and violations in a timely manner and also demanded that the Uganda Police unconditionally releases ordetained suspects including those detained beyond 48 hours.
The CSO’s say that these are critical measures that will enhance access to justice and rule of law during the current coronavirus crisis.