The push for a legal aid law has been a matter of controversy for several years now. Lawyers maintain that the absence of this law and subsequently a legal aid state-financed fund continues to deprive many poor Rwandans of an opportunity to be heard. On the other hand, the government insists that the money to finance such a fund would require billions that it does not readily have. According to the 2014 Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems in Africa, which Rwanda is signatory to, legal aid is more than representation by a lawyer in a court. The meaning is broadened to include legal advice, assistance, representation, education, and mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution. Many Rwandans now wonder, what next? In 2018, the government withdrew the legal aid draft law from parliament before it was tabled. Explaining this change of heart, the Minister of Justice, Johnston Busingye said that the bill was recalled because some articles needed to be revised emphasizing that the issues tied in with budgetary constraints. Busingye said that on further scrutiny, there was a realisation that more than Rwf1bn would be required to finance the cases that would fall under the legal aid bracket if the law was passed. If you put a law in place, then it becomes a right and at the moment, we cannot afford it. We decided to continue applying the policy where anyone who cant afford it can be given legal aid. We try as much as possible to prioritise cases of gender-based violence, women, children, and others but our basic legal aid is mostly at the grassroots level with Abunzi and its free, he said. He explained that at the time the draft went to parliament, the budget for legal aid stood between Rwf40m and Rwf50m but has since almost tripled. Busingye explained that currently, the country is relying on a policy that seeks to serve the vulnerable while at the same time protect the government from lawsuits. Currently, the budget for legal aid is Rwf140m yet what we require is in billions and the government just cant afford it. We can do our best but in the process, no one can sue us for failing to deliver what we didnt promise he said. Not convincing However, the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Forum (LAF), Andrews Kananga disagrees. Kananga said that the excuse of financial constraints, often cited by the government is not convincing enough. LAF is made up of 38 civil society organisations providing legal aid services to vulnerable and indigent groups. Our assessment is that if all laws depended on budgets, we would not have any in place. There is always a cost to anything you do so citing budget as an issue is not convincing at all, he said. He, however, agreed that legal aid cannot go to everyone but the government should learn from other countries processes. “Legal aid is not a luxury but rather a necessity, as it is a reflection of how a state observes democracy and the rule of law. The vulnerable, the poor and marginalized need legal aid in order to enforce their rights or defend themselves against the state,” he said. Finding solutions Kananga explains that to mitigate the financial challenges and promote easier access to legal aid, LAF has through its Legal Aid Civil Society Fund (LACSF), in the last ten years spent over Rwf 863m in grants to 32 local organisation aimed at bridging the need for legal aid services before the establishment of a state legal aid fund. “The fund basically aims to provide quality and accessible legal aid services to the indigent and vulnerable population; and to research, monitor and advocate for improved access to justice and human rights in Rwanda. So far, 125,571 indigent and vulnerable people have benefitted. Jonas Munyagasiza, Executive Secretary of the Rwandan Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ARDO) told The New Times in an interview that although his organisation had plans to provide to 900 people, financial constraints sometimes slow processes down. However, he explained that grants from the legal aid forum had seen 60 people, especially women get the legal representation that they needed. “From 2016 to 2018, we helped 360 people. In 2019 and 2020, the Legal Aid Forum gave us grants totaling seventy million Francs to help these inmates especially in Nyamagabe and Ngoma prisons,” he said. The grants have also supported justice-related work for the poor within eight prisons including Mageragere, Musanze, Muhanga, and Rwamagana. In 2019 alone, LAF issued ARDHO a grant to assist 105 detainees and prisoners. At the time, six of our beneficiaries were accused of murder and the prosecution had requested life imprisonment. The funding helped us to do investigations that uncovered that the prosecutions evidence was inconsistent, which resulted in an acquittal, he said. Keep pushing The President of the Rwanda Bar Association, Julien-Gustave Kavaruganda, recently told this publication that as more and more cases continue to come up, the need for the law and funds cannot be avoided. We are in discussion with the ministry of justice. Even if there is no law yet, there should be guidelines and a budget. They accept this in principle but they also have to discuss this with the Ministry of finance. We have cases that continue to come up that show us that we need this law more,” he said.