Law & Justice

Don’t forget to give them access to justice

Making justice accessible to the poor in countries like Ethiopia could be a tricky exercise. When the law is what stands on the way, it becomes nearly impossible

Kiya Tsegaye

For the second time in a row Ethiopia observed a week-long activities dedicated to create awareness in the justice system. The motto for this year’s justice week, held from April 18-24, 2012, reads: “We strive for Strengthening the Justice System”.  On April 17, 2012, at a press conference attended by representatives from the Federal Supreme Court, officials from the Ministry of Justice and Federal Police asserted – rightly – that the people should actively participate to make sure strong judicial system is in place. The issue of access to justice was however what dominated the weeklong events.

International human rights organizations give a strong recognition to issues related to access to justice and equality before the law. The United Nations Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) all voice their support in unison for poor people’s access to justice. Articles 7 and 8 of the UDHR, for example, state that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to effective remedy against violations of fundamental rights.

The Federal Constitution of Ethiopia under article 9 (4) states that international instruments ratified by the government of Ethiopia are the integral part of the law of the land. And Ethiopia has ratified all the major international human rights instruments.  Not only that, Ethiopia’s constitution under Article 37 says “everyone has the right to bring a justiciable matter to, and to obtain a decision or judgment by, a court of law or any other competent body with judicial power.”  And Article 25 talks about the “equality of all persons before the law” and says everyone is entitled “without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.” More importantly, article 20 imposes an obligation on the state to provide legal aid to accused persons who do not have sufficient means to pay for advocates.  These provisions are further strengthened by article 13, which imposes an obligation on all state organs to respect and enforce the constitution.

But the reality is pretty different. A simple look at the law versus the practice reveals a bundle of discrepancies between the written and the practiced. This is attributed mainly to lack of commitment by the government to enforce the law, low pro bono services and fewer to no roles by the civil society to provide people with access to justice.

The new Charities and Societies Proclamation (Proclamation No. 621/2009), for example, restricts many civil societies from providing free legal aid services to the poor and vulnerable. According to this controversial Proclamation, a civil society working on free legal aid, equality and advocacy in general must raise 90% of its total budget from domestic sources. Owing to that, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which was largely providing free legal services to victims of domestic abuse, has tremendously slashed its services due to lack of funds.

According to a 2011 study conducted by Kilimanjaro International on 27 government institutions, the police institutions and courts were found to perform poorly in service delivery, and lack creditability in the eyes of the general public.

Not only active participation by the people, as was highlighted during the week long justice week, but legal empowerment of the people is crucial to make better the poor people’s access to justice. After all it is the legal system that maintains the security of private property and economic certainty.

As it is making justice accessible to the needy is a daunting task. But when it is threatened by the law itself it not only becomes complicated, but costly too. Making the rights granted by the constitution operational needs policy coherence, as a minimum.

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