Ugandan lawyer revolutionises access to justice with just an iPhone and Facebook

Digital Content

Two years ago, Gerald Abila, while still at Kampala International University, wasn't paying attention to what his teachers were saying all of the time. “I’d be in class, but at the same time I was tweeting and on Facebook,” says the 31-year-old Ugandan lawyer. “So many legal questions would come up, so I thought: let me start a Facebook group. It was just me giving free advice.”

What began as a Facebook group with just 100 members, whom Abila helped every Saturday from 3 to 4 p.m., has now grown into Barefoot Law, a not-for-profit organisation with over 16,000 online followers, and an Android app. “I moved around the country and […] I decided to turn this into an organization, because access to legal services is a nightmare,” Abila says.

At the start the Barefoot Law team worked remotely. Only four months later did they set up offices in the township of Bukoto, Kampala. Today the organisation has seven fulltime volunteers, including a tech person operating from Germany. They receive about 50 queries a day on a variety of issues via social media platforms, Skype, email, phone calls and SMSs.

Abila says at least ten queries a day are employment-related. Most people simply want to find out their rights.  “Succession and property are also very big issues,” says Abila, who injects a portion of his earnings from teaching and handling other legal cases into Barefoot Law.

“We educate and correspond," he says. "Every day we get an aspect of the law we think has been ignored, for example the land act which provides for rights of a squatter, and post about it on social media.”

Through no fault of their own, the majority of Ugandans are not aware of their legal rights. But the internet is a powerful tool.  News of the organisation’s good work has even spread to Kidepo, which is located on Uganda’s border with South Sudan. A man there discovered their services and travelled to Kampala to seek advice on a land conflict. His case was eventually sorted out through mediation.

Even people living thousands of kilometres away in Somalia know about Barefoot Law. Anthony Latim, 38, struggled to get his employer, an NGO, to give him worker’s compensation after he had a serious motorbike accident during work in 2010. He spent four months in a Ugandan hospital with a broken neck and urethra, and he hasn’t worked since 2011.

Frustratingly, his case was delayed and then eventually withdrawn without his consent by his own legal representative. He lost hope until he asked his friends on Facebook if they knew of a reputable legal organisation that could help him.

Amazingly, an old friend from Uganda, who lives in Somalia and “who’s always on the internet” told him about Barefoot Law. Within a day Latim was informed he had a right to compensation and was put in touch with an organisation handling employment disputes.

“I’m very grateful that for the first time I was able to sit down with a lawyer in Uganda who did not ask me for any money,” Latim says. Latim’s lawyers are now in the process of initiating mediation with his employers.

Abila believes that the only way for Uganda to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is for people to be sensitised “on the rule of law, as once it’s violated nothing else can be achieved.”

Still many are ignorant of the country’s laws. Uganda’s lawmakers passed 19 bills in parliament between June 2013 and May 2014, says Irene Ikomu from Parliament Watch, an organisation that provides 'virtual tracking' of parliament through live Twitter data and expert analysis and reviews. “Compared to previous parliaments it’s a lot,” says Ikomu, a lawyer and 2014 Young African Leaders Initiative Network fellow.

The 19 bills include the notorious Anti-Pornography Bill, approved by parliament just before Christmas last year. Earlier versions of the bill had sweeping definitions of “pornography” which mentioned the “sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks or genitalia.” Uganda’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo warned women wearing miniskirts in public would be arrested.

Yet neither the bill nor the final Anti-Pornography Act 2014, which President Yoweri Museveni assented to in February this year, contained the word 'miniskirt'. But this didn’t stop Lokodo and some local media having a field day with the supposed 'miniskirt bill'. Parliament Watch was the first to obtain and disseminate a final draft of the act. “That’s when people started saying ‘oh it doesn’t say anything about miniskirts directly,’” recalls Ikomu.

In mid-February Barefoot Law began receiving up to 200 queries a day from people across the country, including a woman in Mbale, in eastern Uganda.

She had almost been stripped by a group of motorbike taxis and rowdy youth who said she was dressed in a miniskirt, which they claimed was unlawful. When she went to the police they did nothing.

“We received so many of those inquiries we decided to share it,” says Abila. Within an hour 7,000 people had reposted the Barefoot Law Facebook alert about the incident, with media houses and the police also picking up on it. People were informed of the reality of the law.

Reaching people in rural areas is a challenge, but Barefoot Law has joined forces with the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), which has set up outreach centres across the country. Anyone needing legal advice can contact the facilities, some of which have internet access and can reach Abila’s team.
The organisation also works together with the United Nations Children’s Fund, which involves uploading Barefoot Law content to a Uganda Content Portal, which makes the information accessible to kiosks in remote parts of the country.

“We have also partnered with radio stations in hard-to-reach areas. Stations simply call us at a set time, and we offer free advice to the listeners who call in, or physically go to the station,” says Abila. He is hoping to introduce toll-free phone lines and expand to Kenya in the future.

Ikomu and her team continue to live tweet from parliament and have posted every law passed since October online. “When we started we didn’t have lot of money, but we had Facebook and Twitter. Those are easy tools you can use to connect with people,” she says.

Abila believes that technology is the “silver bullet” that can be used to overcome legal challenges. “I always tell my legal colleagues: before you study a Masters do a course in something IT-related, because the future of law is in IT, not law itself,” he says.