Will increasing court costs hinder access to justice for the poor?

Last week local newspapers, radios and the worldwide web carried two stories that picked my interest. The first was an announcement by the Ministry of Justice of a twelve-fold increase in the costs required to register a court case. 
Lonzen Rugira
Lonzen Rugira

Last week local newspapers, radios and the worldwide web carried two stories that picked my interest. The first was an announcement by the Ministry of Justice of a twelve-fold increase in the costs required to register a court case. 

Second was a notice by the Rwanda Utilities Regulation Authority (RURA) that it would switch off its analogue-enabled antennas on the last day of January. 

The attention of the public focused on the costs involved. My interest centered less on what was announced and more on how it was pronounced. 

Let’s start with the facts. The ministry has reviewed the court costs previously set in 2001. A litigant was previously required to pay 2,000 and 4,000 francs to file a case at the courts of first instance and at the intermediate courts, respectively. 

Those charges have been increased to 25,000 and 50,000 francs.

The Minister of Justice, Johnston Busingye, says that the review was a response to both changing times and changes in the delivery of justice in the country. First, costs would be adjusted to respond to the inflation rate, loosely translated to as a sustained increase in prices leading to a loss of value for money, over a certain period of time. 

Some smart chaps were quick to shoot back: this particular increase was not twelve-fold. 

Second, the minister asserted, judges were also overworked. Under the current circumstances, they were required to pronounce themselves on 27 cases per week. 

Also, there are cases that could be handled under the jurisdiction of local community mediators, popularly known as abunzi. 

Third, the previous fee structure presented a moral hazard: lower costs motivated people to file and appeal cases whose verdicts were usually retained from the cell level of mediators to the highest levels in the classic courts. By clogging-up the justice system, this suggested that people had begun to abuse it, which in turn undermined the delivery of justice. 

Therefore, it became imperative to disincentivise those in the habit of rushing to the courts and clogging up the system with trivial lawsuits. The fees would also encourage people to settle ‘small’ disagreements arising from petty crimes, land demarcations, and small amounts of money through the local mediators. 

As mediators ‘reconcile’ people instead of rewarding ‘winners’ and seeking to ‘penalize’ losers, their intervention helps to entrench a key government priority of national reconciliation. 

Would this mean denying the poor access to justice as reported in media outlets? It may actually achieve the reverse. First, very poor people could not afford even the previous amount of 2000, however little it may sound to some. 

However, for this approach to be truly responsive, it would have to be matched by some changes in the way the mediation system works. For instance, as presently constituted, the mediators only accept cases if the two parties reside in the same cell. 

If they are from separate cells, that case would not be in their jurisdiction and would therefore have to go to the formal courts. 

Secondly, the definition of what is a ‘small’ matter may be problematic. Urban residents, for instance, may determine that stealing a goat amounts to a small matter, while in a poor rural context taking one’s goat may carry serious implications for the victim’s livelihood strategies and therefore constitute a big issue. 

If implemented properly, the changes may respond to defects in both the formal and informal neo-traditional systems. Unclogging the former and strengthening the latter would potentially improve the quality of justice delivered across the country. 

Then there is the notice by the Rwanda Utilities Regulation Authority whose responsibilities are self evident in its name. Its notice warns the public that it will turn of its analogue-enabled antennas on January 31, 2014. To be able to access its new, improved, and modern digital broadcasting services, people need to buy ‘converters’ which cost 20.000 francs. With that, they will have the benefit of ‘more channels with high quality signal reception.’ 

One of its officials then spoilt everything when responding to a question regarding what will happen to those who can’t afford to buy the converter, “Let them find the money, because they know the value that it has for them.” 

One is reminded of the eighteenth century French queen, Marie Antoinette, who told poor people unable to afford bread to go and eat cake. 

Finally, public officials always have to make tough choices in the interest of the public. How these are communicated to the public, however, matters a great deal. It is important to communicate in ways that allay fears and point out the benefits clearly. 

While the two initiatives discussed here are clearly in the public interest, their handling suggests we have neglected to develop good public relations as an important element of the way we conduct official business.