By Prof Isaac Kibwage, the Vice-Chancellor, Egerton University
The Second National Legal Aid Conference, running from November 29 to December 4, is special, given its focus on access to justice in crises situations.
The theme, “Access to justice for all in a socio-economic crisis: Lessons from a global pandemic, Covid-19”, comes at a time when countries are deeply concerned about how to build back their economies better, notwithstanding the pandemic containment measures.
We are all aware of the ravages caused by Covid-19. The pandemic dramatically impacted and continues to affect livelihoods across the globe, and more deeply the people in the informal sector.
There is a slow-down in economic growth resulting from the pandemic and a pointer that the larger world population could be pushed to extreme poverty. This has greater pitfalls for the poor and the marginalised because of their socio-economic status. Strategies taken to sustain the economy often overlook the needs of those who are marginalised and poor, compounding issues of access to justice for them.
It is at this point that legal aid becomes handy for those who are poor, vulnerable and marginalised, to help them cope with the stark inequalities deepened by the pandemic. They need the protection of their legal and human rights as well as the needs that are seldom addressed in policy responses. Legal aid services play a pivotal role in protecting the rights of the marginalised and enhancing their access to justice in the various justice systems – formal and informal.
Egerton University management is proud to be associated with the legal aid services offered by the institution through the Faculty of Law, under the aegis of European Union (EU) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through Amkeni Wakenya Project. Through this support, the university was able to reach out to many and facilitated their access to justice during the pandemic, using various initiatives, in collaboration with other stakeholders in the justice sector.
This service is anchored in Egerton University’s vision, which is to become “a world-class university for the advancement of humanity”. It is implemented through the Faculty of Law Legal Aid Project (FOLLAP) that envisions justice and equality for all.
During the pandemic, FOLLAP was able to make a difference in the lives of many in Nakuru County through legal aid services that involved advice, referrals for assistance, training to monitor and report violations, and capacity building, among others.
Through the project, the university is proud of producing responsible graduates that will give back to the society via legal aid. This is what the project inculcates, embracing pro bono work at infancy of training of learning friends.
This conference is another milestone for FOLLAP. Through support of the EU and UNDP under the Amkeni Wakenya project, the university is co-hosting the second National Legal Aid Conference (November 29-December 4) to deliberate on issues of access to justice in socio-economic crises, and in the context of Covid-19 pandemic. The conference is important not only for academic discourse but also for shaping discussions on the direction the country needs to look at to rebuild the economy.
I wish to thank our sponsors – the European Union and UNDP – for the important work they do in promoting access to justice for the poor, vulnerable, and marginalised populations through the various programmes they have in the country.
Throughout the pandemic, EU and UNDP provided support not only to our project but also to other entities, including the government, to respond to the pandemic to prevent infections and minimise the spread of the disease.
In particular, government interventions such as restrictions of movement, lockdown, and curfews, were imperative to secure life, and maintain the legal order and fundamental rights of citizens. All these measures have implications for access to justice for all. However, the marginalised and poor were disproportionately affected due to their socio-economic status.
As we reflect on the theme of the conference, we should be alive to the fact that the citizens are faced with the hardship resulting from the pandemic and recovery is not instant. Rebuilding the economy after the ravage and redressing the related injustices, is an uphill task for citizens and government. As citizens, we have a duty to help the government rebuild the economy in many ways, in the spaces we occupy as scholars, practitioners, administrators of justice, policymakers, civil society, and private sector.
The Second National Legal Aid Conference provides a platform for stakeholders to find a road-map that can help the country build back better, both in the short and long term, to ensure that the strategies adopted are people-centred and have a human rights lens.
I urge those in the justice sector and the development partners, that as we look into strategies for the recovery of the economy, special attention be given to the impacts of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable and marginalised in society.
We must take stock of best practices or guiding principles to ensure equitable access to justice in crisis situations, and be well equipped to address such issues in similar circumstances.
Covid-19 is not leaving us soon. We have to learn to live and adapt to its menace. We must embrace open discussions on how to collectively develop innovative strategies to improve the wellbeing of our society and rally support to the citizens and government to ensure access to justice at all times.
I am hopeful that the outcome of this conference will shape policy and legal responses that are amenable to all. This is our collective and primary goal as responsible citizens.
I appeal to the organisers and sponsors of the conference to ensure that the dialogue started a year ago and running into its second year, be made an annual event for scholars and those in the justice sector to deliberate on access to justice issues and strengthen the collaboration among actors.
More perspectives regarding the conference and the question of legal aid are available here.