KAMPALA — Uganda has made headlines recently for controversial new legislation, but most Ugandans have little understanding of the laws and no access to legal counsel.
To solve this problem, a Ugandan lawyer founded an organization called Barefoot Law that uses social media and other technology to help people cut through the haze of misinformation surrounding the laws that govern them.
Before he began law school, Gerald Abila said he had never actually seen a copy of his country’s constitution. He knew he was not alone.
“I travel a lot, and a lot of people in areas I travel to were like me before I started studying the law... the level of legal ignorance. And access to legal services is too low,” he said.
While ignorance of the law is no defense, Abila said given the level of legal access in Uganda, though, it’s no wonder people know so little about it.
“Ninety-seven percent of lawyers in Uganda are within the capital," he said. "So 97 percent of lawyers serve a population of 2 million people, and the remaining three percent is left to serve a population of around 36 million. So how do you overcome such challenges using technology?”
Abila’s decided Barefoot Law, which he founded two years ago, would be the answer.
Barefoot’s team of volunteer lawyers uses Facebook, Twitter, SMS, Skype calls and a 24-hour call-in service to answer any legal questions Ugandans have, and also to guide them through their cases. Everything they offer is free.
This service has become especially pressing lately as Uganda has passed a raft of controversial legislation, including a harsh new anti-homosexuality law, an anti-pornography law and a bill criminalizing the intentional transmission of HIV.
All that most people know of these laws is what they hear on the radio, said Abila, and the journalists often get it wrong.
When the anti-pornography bill was signed, he said, most media reported that miniskirts were banned, and people started taking the law into their own hands.
“There were instances of stripping women, and the women were fearing to then go and report to the police because they thought it was an offense to wear a miniskirt. So we wrote a post, and we advised the ladies if you can identify anyone that has done that to you, then they could be charged with indecent assault and a number of offenses,” said Abila.
He said the post was viewed 18,000 times by the end of the day.
One Barefoot client, Latim Fassie, had spent all his money fighting for workers’ compensation after a motorbike accident left him hospitalized for months. He said lawyers at Barefoot Law were the only ones who would tell him his rights and explain to him how to proceed when he couldn't find proper representation.
In Uganda, he said it's a rare thing, indeed, to get this kind of help at no charge.
“They are lawyers that even will call you at their own cost, give you technical advice, call you to their offices, share with you, even share with you breakfast on the table while you discuss papers,” said Fassie.
The gratitude they they are shown for their work is genuine, according to Abila. After helping two young people who had been kicked off their mother’s land, Abila said the Barefoot office received an unexpected gift.
“The issue was resolved, and the gentleman sent us shoes, some local shoes, and told us, ‘I hope you guys can now start wearing shoes and don’t be barefoot anymore’,” noted Abila.
Those shoes, made of truck tires and string, are still hanging on the wall above his desk, a reminder of how far they still have to go.