The draft law establishing the Rwanda Bar Association is finally at the promulgation stage, after years doing its rounds in Parliament, the Ministry of Justice and the Kigali Bar Association.
Whereas the learned fraternity is generally happy with this legislation, one of the issues they have raised about it is the fact that it will give government lawyers under what they call “Maison d’Access a la Justice” (MAJ), the powers to plead cases before courts.
MAJ are judicial access points based at districts, put in place to offer legal assistance to the poor citizens, especially those living in the countryside.
The contention is in article 68 which reads thus; “Lawyers coordinating Access to Justice Bureaus may assist, counsel, represent and plead, before all Courts of law, for those needy people.”
Most of the lawyers in MAJ (each district has two), are young, fresh law graduates, who were hired through normal public service recruitment procedures, and most, if not all, have never been associated with the Bar.
A senior defence lawyer whom I talked to recently said that the practitioners do not agree with this provision, saying that this is contrary to the norms of the trade. They give a number of reasons, some of them valid.
These are not the views of the single senior lawyer, but the entire fraternity, through the current Kigali Bar Association, which will become the Rwanda Bar Association, upon promulgation of the said legislation.
One of the reasons fronted by the Bar is that lawyers in MAJ are inexperienced fresh graduates who have never worked under the supervision of a seasoned Attorney. Some have never seen the inside of a courtroom in session.
The lawyers claim that these young advocates should only stay in the offices, offering the services they have been offering, which is interpreting the law for the people, and should never see the inside of the courtroom, before they fulfill the requirements of the bar.
Granted, anyone plying any trade has a moral obligation to ensure that the minimum standards of their trade are observed and it is only natural, but for lawyers, who have been part of this system, I think they are only reverting to “playing the book” because the situation suits that.
In the Rwandan context, especially the one after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, many a time, we have had to go the unconventional way to solve a particular problem the country is faced with.
Let us go back to the time the Kigali Bar Association was created in 1997. The situation begged a massive pool of lawyers to handle the aftermath of the Genocide (with scores of thousands in prison for Genocide), not to mention that lawyers, prosecutors and judges had either been killed, fled, or were in custody.
During this time, even high school graduates were given green light to plead cases before court, and this led to the birth of the so-called judicial defenders’ association, whose institution the new law will scrap.
So the learned brethren will argue that conditions have changed, we are not in emergency any more and there are enough lawyers, with the current figure approaching 900 the last time I checked.
Yet, the government, in instituting the MAJs, it was spooked by the alarming number of ignorance about laws, especially in the countryside and the cases of the poor who lacked legal representation, which is guaranteed in the supreme law of the land, the Constitution.
Granted, the lawyers have a pro bono service mechanism, but this still remains insufficient and there remains a significant disconnect between the lawyers (who are mostly concentrated in Kigali and other cities) and the people in villages.
For a person to get pro bono representation the process is rigorous, including having to first come to Kigali, then go on to prove to the person at the Bar secretariat that you are indeed a destitute before you are considered for the service.
That said, however, government should indeed work closely with the Bar association before giving these lawyers the green light to plead cases before the courts of law.
However, these young people should not be seen as competitors, because there are no clients to compete for, theirs are clients who cannot afford the hourly wages!
The writer is an editor at The New Times