Are Rwanda's poor denied access to justice?

Those who follow development in public affairs on a regular basis will recall the considerable uproar when the Ministry of Justice (MINIJUST) announced that it was increasing twelve-fold the costs for filing a court case. It became hot news in both local and international news media with some raising concern that the decision would lead to poor people being denied access to justice.

Those who follow development in public affairs on a regular basis will recall the considerable uproar when the Ministry of Justice (MINIJUST) announced that it was increasing twelve-fold the costs for filing a court case. It became hot news in both local and international news media with some raising concern that the decision would lead to poor people being denied access to justice. 

It was difficult not to sympathise with this argument. In matters of justice, the central tenet the equality of the poor and the rich under the law is the glue that holds societies together. As such, uproar on the part of those truly motivated by the desire to extend justice for all was legitimate and not uncalled for. 

Regular readers of this column will recall at the time that I pointed out that rather than denying the poor access to justice, it was likely that the Ministry was simply not communicating well the benefits of its proposed changes. For that reason, I thought that the Ministry should have been given the benefit of doubt. However, one would be inclined to argue that rather than extend the benefit of doubt, the Ministry ought to explain better its intentions, and to allay any legitimate fears of the public by pointing to the potential benefits of said changes. 

From the point of view of the Ministry, the public had been misled to an interpretation and conclusion that was not informed by the facts it released. In other words, communication matters. 

My observation at the time was that instead of denying access to justice for the poor, the reforms were likely to respond to structural defects in both the classical and traditional justice systems operating in our country. And that if properly implemented, they would increase access to justice for all by unclogging the former and strengthen the latter. Effectively, the Ministry initiation was a win-win scenario for effective delivery of justice to all Rwandans, rich and poor. Also improved would be its quality. 

Six months down the road, I became curious. Enough time had passed to gather an informed insight into how these reforms were shaping up. 

Community Justice 

The reforms were partly introduced to improve community justice. In this regard, a major defect in the Abunzi system had to do with the nature of its jurisdiction. The previous laws forbid the Abunzi “court” from hearing a “case” where the litigant and the defendant were not residents of the same Cell. 

I use the legal lingo loosely because the Abunzi system is intended to reconcile people, contrary to the litigious classic justice system that is designed for outcomes that create winners and losers.  The system was also limited in responsiveness. It did not accept complaints where the value of assets involved was beyond 3 million francs. This has now been increased to 5 million. 

After the reforms, a wronged person is now free to file a case against another living in another Cell, sector, or district. Moreover, the victim also reserves the right to decide which of the two involved Abunzi jurisdictions should hear the case. 

These changes are expected to unclog the classic courts and make those courts more effective, responding to another central tenet in the realm of justice: Justice delayed is justice denied. 

There’s more. And this is important: Community justice has become more inclusive. Poor people require protection because they are vulnerable and more likely to be exposed to exploitation and unfair treatment, and are therefore accorded special measures to ensure the principle of equal protection before the law. 

All the poor are vulnerable but not all the vulnerable are poor. To align this basic logic with practice, this June the Ministry of Justice hired 90 officials (three per district) to further substantiate this notion of inclusive justice. 

Popularly known by their acronym MAJ (Maison d’accès à la Justice), these officials will provide free legal representation to juveniles (underage boys and girls) involved in criminal cases. These are said to require special protection for the simple fact that they are minors, unable to fully take charge of their mental faculties needed to distinguish between right and wrong and therefore judged unprepared to bare full responsibility of their actions, at least not to the full limits of the law in similar manner that an adult would be exposed to. Most would agree that this is a positive development that advances child protection.

In similar vein, reforms are helping to protect victims of Gender Based Violence (GBV) who are also beneficiaries of these reforms that provide free legal services.  Indeed, the poor, juveniles, and victims of abuse are now guaranteed –by law–free legal representation, according to Emmanuel Munyemana, an official at MINIJUST. 

Are the reforms taking place at MINIJUST denying the poor access to justice? You be the judge. 

 

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