Being a lawyer in … Uganda

Mister Joseph Akwenyu Manoba

Joseph Akwenyu Manoba is a lawyer in Uganda, in East Africa. He works at the general practice firm Murungi, Kairu and Co (practice areas: land, employment, commercial, human rights and a few family related and criminal disputes). Privately, he also engages in international criminal justice matters. He is Legal Advisor to the Uganda Victims Foundation, works with other organizations as a victims’ rights advocate, and collaborates with organisations such as Human Rights Network of Uganda (HURINET), African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), etc.

There are approximately 2000 practicing lawyers registered in Uganda, which is not a lot for a country that is nearly eight times the size of Belgium and has three times as many inhabitants. How do you explain this?

One explanation is that getting the Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, which is necessary to be admitted to the Bar as a practicing lawyer, is a challenge – there is only one institution in the country that offers that particular course. That inhibits some people from joining the legal profession.

The number of people qualified as lawyers has grown over time, but not all of them are practicing the profession or doing Court advocacy. Some are employed in different areas of the economy – NGOs, corporations, etc.

That being said, the number of lawyers is enough to address the current market demand. The only challenge is that most lawyers are not located in rural areas, because in such rural settings most people cannot afford to pay for legal services. Many lawyers therefore concentrate their practice in urban areas which presents problems with access to justice in Uganda’s rural areas. Some NGOs provide legal services to try to fill the gaps in those areas. For example I once worked with the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society, which aims to help the most indigent people get free legal assistance in various parts of the country through Court advocacy, provision of legal advice, and public awareness-raising.

The legal profession has high status in Uganda. Still, it is difficult to make a living, especially for young lawyers.

The economy is terrible these days, and most people cannot afford legal services. Often we do the work on the understanding that we will be paid at the conclusion of the case – but that can sometimes be seven years later. In practice, we might not receive instruction fees immediately although the rules require that we be instructed before we start a case. And yet clients come to us in desperate need. They need our prompt action. With such challenges it is difficult to make a living especially for younger lawyers. Lawyers struggle with their obligations to pay office rent, staff, etc., let alone other family obligations.

Judges have a lot of power in the common law system…

Indeed, in Uganda, our system is based on English common law, which gives the judge wide ranging powers to make decisions and control proceedings. The Judge is the “king”. You must address a judge as “My Lord” – a judge can get mad if you address him as “Your Honour” because this indicates a lower rank. Some judges do not have background as a practising lawyer. I heard of some advocates having problems with a judge throwing files at them. But in general, there is a mutual sense of respect. Our profession enjoys a high degree of independence.

Have you ever felt threatened in the exercise of your profession?

I have never been threatened. I have on occasion received anonymous phone calls and nobody speaks on the other side of the line. However, I know of cases where lawyers have been threatened – shot at, beaten, or a gun pointed at them. If the person on the other side gets the feeling that you might get them convicted of a crime, they may retaliate, threaten you, put your life at risk, etc. I remember once ASF asked me to handle a torture case, where we would initiate private proceedings and thereby prosecute the individuals who perpetrated and tortured an ASF client. I declined because the country does not have a protection law, and because ASF was not offering sufficient remuneration for me to get involved, especially since the people involved in that sensitive case were military people.

What attracted you to the legal profession?

I thought it would be good to be a lawyer, so I went for it. At first, I thought about being a tax lawyer because I could make lots of money there. Along the way, I found out that my calling wasn’t in taxation but more in social and human rights, and I found satisfaction in assisting poor people while I was working with the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society. With the violence and atrocities that occurred in Northern Uganda, I got more interested in working to assist victims. I see myself more as a human rights lawyer, but I still do criminal commercial and other work.

There is still a lot to be done for the poor communities of our country. There are also people who are victims of crimes such as torture, who might find it hard to get access to a lawyer. We need to get more lawyers involved to improve access to legal services.

January 2013


Capital: Kampala
Official language: English & Swahili
Population: 35.873.000
Life expectancy at birth: 54.1 years
GDP per capita (PPP): 1.124 USD
Mean years of schooling: 4.7 years
Adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above): 71.4
Classification HDI*: 0.446 (n° 161 out of 187 countries)
Government: Republic
Lawyers: 2,000 (1 for 17,250 every inhabitants)
Percentage of lawyers in the capital: between 95 and 100%
Bars: 1
Courts of appeal: 1

* HDI = Human Development Index, used to rank countries, composed from three dimensions:  health/long-lived (life expectancy at birth), knowledge and education (adult literacy rate), and standard of living (GDP per capita in PPP).

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