Reinventing the Rules

Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects

Interview with the Refugee Law Project on Mobile Courts in Ugandan Refugee Settlements

My latest interview with the Refugee Law Project from the Makerere University School of Law provided amazing insight on a pilot project to increase access to justice for refugees in Uganda through a mobile court. This project is one of the first of its kind and the interview covers important topics such as the specific challenges refugees, and particularly women, seek justice for and how witness protection and interpretation services are provided. The interview also highlights recommendations for future projects involving mobile courts in refugee camps.  Enjoy!

Credit:  Zalmaï/The Guardian

Credit: Zalmaï/The Guardian

What are some of the biggest legal challenges for refugees in Nakivale and how has the mobile court helped?

The mobile court was launched last year on April 15thto extend services closer to the refugees so that they can access justice.  The court was accessible to refugees in the settlement and led to the quick disposal of cases that had been pending for some time. The presence of a mobile court led to a reduction in the backlog of cases.

The court was expected to sit three times in a year, but only sat once in April which has been a great challenge.  This means that refugees have resumed with the previous system where they have to move out of the settlement for their cases to be heard. The greatest challenge has been finances. Running a mobile court is quite costly since it involves numerous expenses like paying the judicial officers, State Prosecutors, Court interpreters and other officers of court.

Refugees have difficulty in accessing bail. Bail is a right enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda. Specific criteria must be fulfilled before bail is granted. The law requires one to have substantial sureties who are nationals standing in for them. Refugees are confined in settlements where the majority of the people they interact with are fellow refugees. The few nationals in the settlement are not interested in standing in as sureties for refugees for fear that they may return to their countries of origin. Though some refugees have been granted bail, the majority still face a challenge.

The grant of cash bail has posed a challenge for refugees who are not in a position to afford the amount of money requested. Refugees are a vulnerable group who suffer from economical and emotional challenges from the devastating effects of forced migration. They do not have the financial capacity to sustain themselves making it difficult to afford cash bail.

Another challenge is that the court sits as a Magistrate court, but some cases are capital offenses like murder, rape, and defilement. These cannot be handled in the Magistrate’s court; they have to be handled by the High Court. There is a need for the Court to sit as a high court to handle the capital offences in the settlement.

What have been the challenges for women in the refugee settlement?

For refugee women, most of them are afraid of testifying in court especially in cases concerning domestic violence, causing grievous harm, and assault. The majority think testifying in court will lead to community resentment and personal insecurity in the form of torture, cruel, inhumane treatment or punishment. This has been witnessed in the withdrawal of cases by women both at the police stations and in court. For the women who are afraid of testifying, they could benefit from community awareness raising which is conducted by the different partner organizations in the settlement but also advocate for the Witness Protection Bill to be passed into Law so that refugees can testify without fear.

What are the challenges for children and youth?

For children, it’s hard for them to testify in open court. The court proceedings for children are supposed to be held in camera but limited court space has made it difficult for such proceedings involving children. For youth, 18-30, most of them can come up and testify, so it has not really been a challenge for the youth.

Have there been any challenges in enforcing the decisions of Chief Magistrates who preside over the mobile courts?

No, there have been no challenges yet. From the time the mobile court was launched, there have been no challenges in enforcing the decision. Where a client is aggrieved with the decision of the magistrate, they have a right to appeal to the High court. If they are not satisfied with the High Court, they can appeal to the Court of appeal and then the Supreme Court which is the final court of appeal.

Who enforces the decision of the Chief Magistrate?

This depends on the sentence that has been passed. It could be the prison officers, Police, or court bailiffs. The advocates make follow ups to ensure that the decisions are enforced. Where one is sentenced to imprisonment, the prison officers ensure that the convict is taken to prison. Where one is sentenced to community sentence, the police offer a supervisory role. Where one is to pay compensation, the money is paid in court.

Credit: HOL

Credit: HOL

One challenge with enforcing decisions especially those involving compensation has been delays on the part of those convicted. Most of them, specifically refugees, cannot afford the amount of fined.  They are re-arrested and taken to prison. The prison is out of the settlement.

With many of the refugees originally coming from countries such as South Sudan, DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia, providing interpretation seems to have been a significant challenge. How have you worked through this issue over the last year? 

The language barrier has caused delays in the dispensation of Justice. The court is under an obligation to provide interpreters, but at times the court finds it challenging to access interpreters who speak certain languages like Amharic, Tigrinya. It’s difficult getting such interpreters and those that are there ask for lots of money which slows the whole process due to numerous adjournments, which causes delays in accessing justice.

The problem is that some of the interpreters are afraid of interpreting for the refugees because they’re from the same community. Especially if both the Complainant and the accused are both refugees, and if one interprets for the Complainant, the other party may believe the interpreter has taken sides. Then another thing is that most interpreters are not familiar with the language of the court. They need to first be trained on the legal language of court before they actually come up to interpret. There has been an influx of South Sudanese refugees and it’s difficult to get someone to interpret Arabic, so most of those cases are being delayed.

The Refugee Law Project has a team of professional interpreters who have helped in court interpretation. Most of them are readily available to help with interpretation. Community interpreters have also been identified in the settlement and have undergone training on court procedures.

One of the challenges involved in hosting a mobile court is witness protection. How does the mobile court address this issue and what can be done to protect witnesses or Complainants who bring a case?

This has been a challenge since there is no law on witness protection in the country. There is a witness protection bill.  The Uganda Law reform commission has undertaken consultations with the relevant stakeholders and civil society organizations before they can push for enactment of the Law. The bill is in its final stages to be presented before parliament for recommendations.

For most of the clients who face threats after testifying in court, they are advised to report to the police, Local Council leaders, or the Refugee Welfare Committees for protection. Refugee Law Project advocates are usually in court to ensure that the clients are at ease and in a position to testify.

There have been situations where clients have been harassed after court. Such clients are assisted with relocation to other camps with help from Office of the Prime Minister the Government Directorate responsible for the protection of refugees. At times such cases are identified and referred for resettlement. If someone is facing grave insecurity in the settlement one option would be remove them from the settlement and identify and refer the case for resettlement to another country.

How can mobile courts in refugee settlements or camps help communities transition and prepare for life in a post-war context?

Mobile courts are established to handle violations and crimes committed within Uganda. There are violations that occur during conflict like sexual and gender-based violations which have not been addressed and there are no systems in place to handle such violations. [Though] refugees demand that mobile courts address violations that occurred during the conflict, the mobile courts cannot address crimes that occurred out of Uganda. The courts have jurisdiction to handle crimes that occur in Uganda.

However, the refugees appreciate the presence of the mobile court in the settlement which has paved the way for access to justice. The presence of the courts is security for many of the refugees. They feel safe living in the settlement because most of their access to justice needs can be addressed by the courts.

What role has lawyers and community-based paralegals played in refugee settlements and the mobile courts?

There are volunteer lawyers but very few lawyers are interested in pro bono work. The Uganda Law society has a Legal Aid clinic with pro bono lawyers to represent clients in courts, but they are few in number.  The Refugee Law Project offers pro bono legal aid services, with 2 advocates, 2 legal assistants and 2 paralegals. Community based paralegals assist in boosting legal aid services, ensure that all files are in court, and they follow up with witnesses to ensure that they appear in court. They also help with legal drafting. They are not allowed to proceed in court since they lack Practicing certificates.

The demand for legal aid services is overwhelming as compared to the lawyers available. Some implementing partners have hired private lawyers who are very expensive.  There is a need to encourage more lawyers to get involved in Pro bono legal work and there is a need toincrease the number of State Prosecutors.

It’s been one year since this pilot project was launched, what were some of the lessons you’ve learned through this initiative and what recommendations would you provide for future initiatives?

The mobile court has helped dispose of cases faster. It’s also accessible to the refugees in Nakivale.  Many of the clients have appreciated the efforts of the mobile court in Nakivale. The presence of the court has seen a reduction in crime within the settlement. So the court has helped deter people from committing crimes. The presence of the court led to a reduction of client cases on remand.


The court should sit more often, but if possible, a permanent court should be established in Nakivale and in other refugee settlements which are quite far from the courts. The court should sit after every two months and also sit as the High court to handle the capital cases that are committed in the settlement. So in the first week it could sit as the Chief Magistrate court and the other week it could sit as the High court.

There is also a need to enhance the capacity of Justice and Law enforcement institutions specifically on matters pertaining to forced migration, refugee law, rights and obligations of refugees in the host countries.

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2014 by in Interviews and tagged , .

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