IJM and Ugandan Courts Launch Precedent-Setting New Reforms

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Debra Hobbs, a fellow with IJM Kampala, describes court improvements to Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine at the Open Court day on May 2.

Debra Hobbs, a fellow with IJM Kampala, describes court improvements to Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine at the Open Court day on May 2.

Crucial court records were once chaotic and unusable. Now, they are clearly organized.

Crucial court records were once chaotic and unusable. Now, they are clearly organized.

A new electronic case management system will help poor widows and orphans secure justice more quickly.

A new electronic case management system will help poor widows and orphans secure justice more quickly.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – For decades, widows and orphans in Mukono District had little hope of getting help in court when criminals violently stole their homes or land.

IJM has been working with government partners to protect them and, this year, unveiled crucial reforms to improve how local courts serve the poor.

This May, two pilot courts in Mukono officially launched these reforms at an “Open Court Day” where community members could learn about services the court provides. IJM and its partners hope to replicate successes from these two courts across the country.

IJM Uganda Field Office Director Jesse Rudy says, “When they write the history books, they may well point to the reformation of these two courts as a turning point in the reputation of Uganda’s judiciary.”

Problems left widows and orphans struggling

IJM has been defending victims of property grabbing in Uganda’s Mukono District since 2008. By representing individual cases, IJM discovered how ineffective courts and law enforcement were leaving vulnerable widows and orphans virtually defenseless to criminals who violently chased them from their homes and land.

Widows and orphans faced problems like these in seeking justice in court:

  • Barriers from the beginning: Courts were disorganized in bringing on new cases, with complicated and confusing processes that court staff often failed to explain. If a widow’s home was stolen and she had no money to hire a lawyer, she could spend years trying to open a court case on her own, and years longer to have it heard before a judge.
  • Confusing notes and lost files: Judges and court magistrates often kept hand-written notes during hearings, leaving room for error, misinterpretation and wasted time. From there, there was virtually no filing system for case records, so records were often left scattered and decaying in large storage rooms. This confusion also helped facilitate corruption, with some files “lost” on purpose.
  • Poor scheduling and wasted time: Cases met frequent delays when judges were absent or overbooked, or when case files went missing. Each delayed hearing required a widow to return again months later, meaning another day not being able to work or support her family.

For poor families already struggling to survive, these delays and errors could spell disaster.

Key reforms bridge the gap

Since 2012, IJM and the Ugandan Judiciary have been introducing significant reforms into two key courts—Mukono Chief Magistrate’s Court and Jinja High Court—to address these problems and better serve the poor. At the public ceremony on May 2, they unveiled four reforms working to modernize and improve these courts:

  • Organized filing systems to maximize efficiency and accuracy: As part of this project, IJM staff and U.S. volunteers helped organize more than 100,000 court records in 2013. One Jinja court employee said, “Finding and retrieving files from the archives used to take days, now it takes just a few minutes.”
  • Electronic case management so cases can move more quickly through the courts: Today, 100% of all new case files are now being entered into a digital system in both project courts, so vulnerable widows can get help faster.
  • Stenographic recorders to create accurate, objective and complete records: Replacing hand-written notes helps ensure files will be clear and understandable for all parties. The Mukono Chief Magistrate’s Court is the first court of its kind in Uganda to use this kind of electronic system.
  • Workflow improvements for administrative staff to reduce errors and opportunities for corruption: Yorokamu Bamwine, the principal judge of Uganda’s High Court, said, “These improvements are strengthening the image of the courts and the trust of the people.”

In all of these reforms, court staff displayed great trust in allowing IJM staff and volunteers to handle confidential court case files, train court staff and provide oversight into daily operations.

“These courts have the potential to be models of positive change,” Rudy says. “While there remains a long road in front of us, we have already started to see change in these courts—greater efficiency, greater accuracy, greater transparency, and most of all, greater commitment to bringing justice to all people, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.”

IJM continues to actively support these Project Courts and will study improvements and progress that arises over the next several years.

Learn how IJM Uganda has been working with police to protect vulnerable widows and orphans.

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