The importance of good legal aid is often overlooked until a serious need for legal counsel or representation arises. The reasons people need legal aid can vary as widely as the individuals themselves. Some people need legal representation either as the claimant or defendant. Whatever the need for legal aid, it is certain to be an important issue and one in which there is no room for mistakes. Bryan Kimenyi of the Sunday Times caught up with an eminent scholar in the field of law to get an insight into how legal aid clinics operate in Rwanda.
Q: Who are you?
A. I am Aimable Havugiyaremye a Lecturer at the National University of Rwanda-NUR and Coordinator of the legal Aid Clinic. I also happen to be a former student of the NUR (LLB) and the University of Pretoria (LLM in International Law)
Q: When and why did the Legal Aid Clinic begin?
A. The history of legal clinics in Rwanda is recent. The first legal clinic dates back in 2001.Today there are over four Legal Aid Clinics countrywide.
They effectively operate in here at the National University of Rwanda-NUR, the Kigali Independent University (ULK- Gisenyi Campus) which officially launched its activities in June 2006, ULK Kigali (from 2007) and INLAK (from 2007).
The NUR legal aid clinic was established by the Faculty of Law of the National University of Rwanda in its efforts to help vulnerable population.
Its creation appeared as an alternative to the triple mission assigned to the National University of Rwanda, i.e. education, research and service to the community.
As a matter of fact, with regard to education, there was a need to marry theory with practice in order to allow students benefit from an adequate legal training.
In addition, it has to be reminded that every citizen, every relationship is affected by laws, which in more regulated societies are governed by often complex rules and enforcement mechanisms.
In developing countries, one can discern a gradual disappearing of traditional societal relationships which took care for the resolution of conflicts.
Q. What would you say are the achievements of your Legal Aid Clinic in the last 9 years?
A. Often people do not know the law or their individual rights; others who might know their entitlements will lack the resources or confidence in the law to take cases forward.
Ordinary people wishing to assert or clarify their rights therefore need the services of knowledgeable service providers or professionals to guide them through the maze of the law: access to justice.
Good legal services (advice and assistance) are essential if the people of Rwanda are to recover confidence in going to the law.
Since 2001, there has been a satisfying progress in the activities of the Legal Clinic. In 2008, 1987 cases were handled, while at the beginning of its activities only 52 cases were registered.
Q. Are the activities of the legal aid clinic funded by the NUR?
A. I would say that most of the LAC activities are funded by NUR though some funds come from different donors to implement specific projects.
Q. What are the major cases received in the Legal Aid Clinic?
A. Because of what the country went through in the mid 90s, the most common cases we handle are related to succession, sexual violence against women and especially children, claim for property, genocide trials, etc.
Q. Is giving legal advice the only contribution of LAC?
A. The Legal Aid Clinic is not interested in only handling legal problems but also in knowing the causes or realities behind those problems. The students and staff know that we have a mission of promoting human rights without any distinction based on any social or sex group.
This we do through dissemination of laws and providing local leaders with trainings that help them to efficiently implement their duties.
With the help of Radio Salus (NUR-Radio) we are able to reach out to the population by explaining to them some important issues about human rights.
LAC also publishes booklets that contain answers to the legal questions that the population often raises in different domains of law.
However research is the greatest contribution we give to society as it aims at revealing the truth underlying a given problem.
Q. Does the Legal Aid Clinic have the right to represent clients in court?
A. For the moment, most of the lecturers involved in LAC are now registered in the Rwandan Bar Association and help to represent the population in court when needs be. What the students do is to help identify special cases that need our help.
Q. Are your clients only those who can’t afford legal advise from private law firms?
A. As we talk now, the legal aid clinic has had a far reaching impact on the population. We receive all cases regardless of their nature and who has brought them.
Most people think that we only specialise in emphasising the rights of vulnerable people, but even those with the ability to higher lawyers are free to come over.
Q. Do you plan to widen your area of operation to other provinces?
A. Yes, not only in the provinces but also in neighbouring countries like DRC and Burundi. We have even done a project on that issue and we are still seeking for funds to extend our services to whoever needs them.
Q. What is your relationship with the Ministry of Justice?
A. When it comes to the implementation of specific projects, we most of the time collaborate with MINIJUST because they are the foundation of laws in Rwanda not forgetting the fact that they have better resources than we do.
Q. How useful is the legal aid clinic to the law students?
A. The Legal Aid Clinic provides a unique and structured educational opportunity for students to observe and experience actual and simulated client representation, and to extract appropriate skills, values and ethic from that experience.
Teaching of the population’s rights and the relevant laws in which those rights are provided for thus enriching them with a good knowledge of the law.
Q. Are the students paid in any way for the service they give?
A. The students are not paid because it is a compulsory course for them. Those who make better reports at the end of course get better marks.
Q. What problems do you encounter?
A. With a service that involves the population, we are prone to facing a number of problems. Finances for most of the projects are not easily available mainly to facilitate the implementation of some projects.
As for the clients, some of them try to hide the reality when stating their problems; that’s the reason why we sometimes go to the ground to find out what is really happening.
We try to collaborate effectively with law enforcers and local government because without their help our work would be ruined.
Q. What advice would you give to those who want to seek legal advice?
A. The LAC doors are open for those who are in need of legal aid. We encourage them to approach us and get help with whatever legal problem they have. Our mission is to help them to access justice.