Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Ruth Sebatindira, the newly elected President of the Uganda Law Society (ULS). The interview was as inspiring as it was informative. Some of the things we touched on were even reminiscent of the struggles the legal profession faces in the United States. Due to the number of topics we covered, I’m posting Part I of the interview today. Next week I’ll post Part II of what Ms. Sebatindira thinks about the challenges to implementing youth programs, how to fight the negative perception of lawyers in Uganda, whether informal justice systems can alleviate case backlog, and pre-trial detention projects.
About Ruth Sebatindira: Ruth is a business lawyer and the founder and managing partner of Ligomarc. Her fourteen years’ of experience include time as a litigator, where she handled unprecedented cases in banking and finance as well as in trademarks and drug regulation. She has also worked as a Senior Tax Advisor with Deloitte & Touche, Kampala and with M/s Kalenge, Bwanika, Kimuli & Co. Advocates, a commercial litigation law Firm in Kampala. Led by her efforts, the Uganda Law Society created the first ever Female Lawyers Committee in its 57 year history to improve the standing and influence of female lawyers in the legal profession.
In 2011, it was reported that ULS had 1,250 attorneys. Do you know approximately what the percentage of women in the legal profession is now?
The ULS membership has been steadily growing: 1250 in 2011, 1400 in 2012. Currently 37% of the Uganda Law Society are women.
What are some of the biggest challenges for women in the legal profession in Uganda?
The challenges for our women lawyers include the fear of running one’s practice, rainmaking, work life balance, equal pay, and maternity leave.
As the numbers continues to rise through law schools, only a few law firm partners and even fewer women lawyers are involved at the highest levels of management, except in the case of corporations where women lawyers have risen faster than their colleagues in law firms, law schools, the judiciary and government agencies. There are also not many women in leadership positions in the Judiciary and yet they employ a good number of brilliant women.
(From my informal interaction with both men and women lawyers) women are less satisfied with the advancement opportunities within the legal profession. Law firms, in particular, need improvement when it comes to encouraging the professional development of women lawyers and advancing women lawyers to leadership positions. In the corporate world, huge strides have been made and the women lawyers there have progressed faster into leadership roles like board members, heads of legal teams, etc.
The mother of all challenges is pregnancy, which is a barrier to advancement, especially for those working in law firms. Overall, there is less remuneration for qualified female lawyers, delayed promotions especially when women return from maternity leave, and fewer days for their rightful maternity leave. Most female lawyers take off less time for maternity leave than is stipulated under the law.
In addition, there are challenges faced by women in small firms and sole practices, particularly when they have family responsibilities, are on maternity leave, or are raising infants at home. Many women close their practice until they come out of maternity leave.
What role would you like to see the women of ULS take on in the future?
Women lawyers should take up more leadership roles in their law firms and wherever they are employed. They should impact their world. I would like to see more female partners in law firms. Those that have risen should mentor the young ones and they should not forget their duty to groom others for leadership positions, which will in turn advance all women in the legal profession.
Law firms should have hiring, motivating, and retention policies to keep women lawyers so that they do not completely leave the profession or leave to start small firms which they cannot run on their own.
Previous studies show that women in parts of Uganda have difficulty accessing justice due in part to financial constraints, distance, and gender bias in the law. Do you think the participation of female lawyers in pro bono and access to justice programs has had an impact on this?
FIDA U [The Uganda Association of Female Lawyers] is doing very good work in this area through their clinics. Since the majority of their lawyers are female, they have made such a huge difference for women especially in family matters.
In the future, female lawyers should set up sensitization sessions that target women so that these women in turn are empowered to demand respect for their rights. The more enlightened women are, the more they will seek access to justice.
Previously, you’ve mentioned that you’re passionate about technology. In fact technology seems to increasingly be playing a role in helping people understand and exercise their rights. What role, if any, do you see for technology as ULS tackles some of the goals you mentioned you would like to meet this year (ie. improve access to justice, the national curriculum; strengthen institutional capacity, and contribute to the policy/legal framework in Uganda)? (I see ULS has already taken advantage of facebook and twitter!)
Uganda has caught up with the advancement in technology at a very fast pace. With these new advancements, it will be easier for the public to access information on case progression, nearest legal aid clinics through platforms such as SMS inquiry system (almost every adult in Uganda has access or owns a mobile phone), legal phone apps (for the contribution to the legal/ constitution awareness drive) as well as an e-court system and the digitization of court records. If people can receive the information relating to their case on their mobile phones, this in the end will deliver effective and high quality justice for our people as well help save on transportation costs to the Courts.
The benefits are, but not limited to, improving access to information, online payment for court fees (which will also cut out the middlemen who have been charging exorbitant fees from unsuspecting citizens of the public); and online updates of court progress on cases.
Currently, we are also looking for partnerships with a technology company to help us maximise the use of technology as we deliver services to our members and the public.
Are there any innovative programs that you feel ULS has implemented and what has been the result?
Our Access to Justice services are the most innovative. Our Legal Aid Project, with support from the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) and the Justice, Law & Order Sector (JLOS), have established three new clinics in Mbarara, Arua and Soroti. Our community outreach has improved and has remained key to the project as this has enhanced the capacity of various communities to demand Rule of Law, accountability, and respect for human rights. Through this activity, the project was able to sensitize over 2,824 people. The project also undertook capacity building for community-based paralegals in Mukono and Mbarara; whereby 120 community paralegals were trained in the application of domestic violence laws, land rights, children’s rights, succession, and issues related to marriage and divorce.
We hope to introduce the Duty Counsel Scheme, which if successful, will allow a number of courts to have an Advocate present to provide on the spot legal advice and representation to those unrepresented indigent persons in courts of law.
ULS has partnered with a number of international organizations to promote the rule of law in Uganda. Based on your experience working on these programs, what are 3 things you believe should be incorporated or changed in future programs?
In our future programs we will focus on training our people at the secretariat to achieve excellence in serving our members and the Public. We would like to recruit more staff and create a bigger secretariat to serve our growing membership and the growing population of Uganda. We would like to think global in our approach and participate more broadly in rule of law spheres where the global agenda is set. We also want to attend all the important meetings at both regional and international levels so that we participate in rule of law discussions, share our experiences, and learn from such forums.
What do you think the international community should pay more attention to?
1) See that we have in place a National Legal Aid Policy
2) Address the deficiencies in the judiciary which include: Lack of an e-court system and digitized records; Premises that are unsuitable for court work; Backlog; Poor remuneration and working conditions; Corruption; and the Judiciary’s funding issues (by increasing the amount of funds that it allocates to the Judiciary); and a quota of the National Budget should be allocated to the Judiciary as a standing national obligation protected by legislation. This will enable the Judiciary as ‘an equal arm of government’ to be effective when properly funded to deliver its mandate.
3) The Administration of Justice Bill should be passed by Parliament to ensure that Courts execute their mandate in an environment that is free from all forms of control.