A debate has ensued following a decision by Cabinet to set new court fees, which include the costs met by the plaintiff at the time they are filing a case.
The fees are significantly higher than the current fees, which were let more than ten years ago.
The government says the revised fees will help courts meet some of the operational costs, with officials urging the public to consider other redress channels such as the grassroots-based mediators framework, and arbitration forums in case of commercial disputes, before taking legal action.
In recent years, officials in the Justice sector say, more people have been petitioning higher courts, including the Supreme Court, on matters that could have adequately been handled by the lower courts or even the mediators.
Mediators, commonly known as Abunzi, are based at both the cell and sector levels, and they can handle a dispute whose value does not exceed Rwf3 million.
And, keen to boost this form of conciliatory justice system, the government says it will soon deploy three legal experts in each of the country’s 30 districts who will provide regular advice to the voluntary ‘judges’ who constitute the Abunzi panels. Each Abunzi panel is made up of 12 people who are elected by their community peers onthe basis of their integrity and track record in society.
The Abunzi concept is built around the same model as the much-acclaimed Gacaca system, the country’s traditional community-based justice system that tried nearly two million cases related to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
According to the new court fees structure, approved by Cabinet last month but yet to be published in the Official Gazette, one will be required to pay Rwf50,000 before filing a case with a primary court, up from the current Rwf2,000; while a plaintiff will pay Rwf70,000, up from Rwf4,000, in an intermediary court.
The fees also considerably rose from Rwf6, 000 to Rwf80, 000 for both the High Court and commercial courts; while filing a case in the Supreme Court will see the plaintiff part with Rwf100, 000, instead of the current Rwf8, 000.
However, one will be exempted from paying these fees if they prove that they are indigent.
The Minister for Justice Johnston Busingye says the revision was necessary because the existing fee structure was set in 2001 and was no longer commensurate with current prices.
Under the new proposal, fees for interpretation, medical care and other any other expertise will be set by the presiding judge, with the losing party ultimately incurring the costs.
Failure to pay court fees will attract a fine of 4 per cent a day, according to the new structure
But some activists have questioned the rationale of increasing the court fees, warning that it might get justice out of reach for many people.
“We are against this move. In a society where we have people who are unable to pay up little money to access health care, it’s obvious that these court fees constitute a serious burden for many,” Edouard Munyamariza, the Executive Secretary, Civil Society Platform of Rwanda, said last week.
He said the civil society is still making sense of the changes and will soon present its position to government. “I don’t think it’s a pro-poor decision.”
But Laurent Nkongoli, a lawyer by training and commissioner in National Human Right Commission, said the changes would not constitute a stumbling block to justice as long as people who are unable to meet the costs are assisted by government, as is with the case under the Mutuele de Sante, the community-based public insurance system.
Local authorities will need to confirm that one is indigent to access such support.
But Remy Munyaneza, a lawyer at MRB attorneys, a Kigali based law firm, warned that many people might end up claiming that they are indigent which could complicate the process to identify who genuinely is and who is not.
Athanase Rutabingwa, the president of Rwanda Bar Association, said initially he was skeptical about the move but he now understood the rationale.
“I think it is fair to have someone who’s filing a case contribute towards the cost of justice.”
He says the current fee structure encouraged almost everyone to seek legal redress in court even when out of court settlement is the obvious choice.
“This has strained our courts, I think it’s an issue everyone needs to understand and appreciate the need to make some adjustments.”
According to a 2013 judicial report, courts, especially at the higher level, are grappling with a huge backlog of cases.
In the Supreme Court alone, there were 2,492 pending cases.
The report said the backlog cannot be cleared in less than six years.
“We should have a mechanism that discourages people from running to court for trivial issues,” Rutabingwa said.
Government says the plaintiff will recover the money spent once the defendant loses the case.