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Out of court: Ugandans turn to ‘barefoot lawyers’ to settle land disputes

When Emma Obokullo’s grandmother became embroiled in a property inheritance wrangle, he went online for answers.

Obokullo had spotted a Facebook post by BarefootLaw, a local non-profit aiming to find new ways to teach Ugandans about their rights.

Now, through email and messaging apps, they helped him and his grandmother to claim property she had inherited.

“In Uganda, lawyers don’t take you seriously,” said Obokullo, a social worker in the capital Kampala.

With the free advice he received online, he was able to prod his own lawyer into action. Eventually, his grandmother was reimbursed for her property, which he considers a success.

BarefootLaw was founded by Ugandan law students in 2012, initially as a Facebook page.

The group handles about 100 legal matters every day and reaches 350,000 people a month through phone, text messages and social media, as well as old-fashioned public meetings.

It handles enquiries ranging from family disputes to employment, but the most common issue is land, making up almost a quarter of requests.

In central Uganda, colonial land policy has left a legacy of overlapping interests, said Phoebe Murungi, BarefootLaw’s director of legal services.

In the north, customary systems of ownership have been strained by two decades of civil war, which ended in 2006.

“For most people in Uganda land is equivalent to capital,” she added. “If you’re poor, and you want to do something to get you out of that situation, it’s going to start and end with land because it’s the only thing you own.”

The Barefoot lawyers do not represent people in court but suggest how to resolve legal problems—perhaps directing a caller to a legal aid organisation, or connecting them to community leaders for mediation.

“There will never be enough lawyers to serve the entire country,” said Murungi.

“For people to take steps to resolve their justice needs they have to receive just enough information to understand where they are: Is this a legal need? Where can it be resolved? Who can I speak to and is it worth my time?”

Uganda’s population of 41 million is served by just 3,200 lawyers, said Joyce Nalunga Birimumaaso, chief executive of the Uganda Law Society. Three-quarters of those are based in the capital Kampala.

“So many people are yearning for legal representation, legal help,” she said, but they “are ignorant about where to go”.

Land a source of conflict

A survey in 2015 by the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, a Dutch social enterprise, estimated there had been about 5 million land disputes in Uganda in the preceding four years.

In only one in three cases did the parties go to the police, and in just 4 per cent did they seek advice from a lawyer.

At a recent BarefootLaw outreach meeting in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda, 60 women and a few crying babies crowded into a stuffy church hall to discuss everything from domestic violence to writing a will.

In the audience was Grace Odwar, who has been fighting for more than a decade to defend her tiny plot of land, which is claimed by the nephew of her late brother-in-law.

Men sometimes come to her thatched hut at night, rattling the door and shouting threats. Once they tried to set fire to the roof, she said.

“I thought when night would come I might not reach the following day,” she explained.

She has already spent more than 1 million Ugandan shillings ($270) on lawyers and has little money left.

The Barefoot team is now considering how to address her problem.

Community mediation

In a similar case, BarefootLaw is using mediation to help Pyerina Adong Otto keep her rural homestead in the nearby sub-county of Awach.

After her husband died, the village chairman started claiming the land was his, even building a small hut there.

“I’ve stayed here for 27 years,” she said. “Where can I go?”

Pyerina shared her story with the Barefoot team at an outreach meeting. They connected her to a district councillor, who offered to mediate.

The councillor called elders and community leaders to Pyerina’s home, and together they walked the contested boundaries, concluding that Pyerina could use the land.

This process has given her some protection, although tension lingers. When she showed her land to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the village chairman appeared.

“These people are trespassers,” he shouted, gesticulating at Pyerina and a friend.

The Barefoot team acknowledged that personal disputes of this kind, especially between neighbours, may never be completely resolved.

But they are unswerving in their conviction that knowledge of the law—be it formal courts or local mediation—can defend Ugandans against injustice.

“It could literally mean life, death, prosperity, lack (thereof),” said Murungi. “It changes things completely.”

By Reuters

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