How social media is disrupting legal practice in Uganda

How social media is disrupting legal practice in Uganda
How social media is changing lawsuits and litigation

Kampala, Uganda | URN | Last month, human rights lawyer and activist, Eron Kiiza came under fire for allegedly writing offensive Facebook posts against the Mubende Resident Judge, Joseph Murangira.

Uganda Law Society (ULS), which is charged with ensuring high levels of professionalism among lawyers, asked him to ‘withdraw’ the posts.

Simon Peter Kinobe, the President of ULS a body charged with ensuring high levels of professionalism among lawyers, says that by using social media to attack a judicial officer, Kiiza did not only violate principle of fair hearing but also denied the judge an opportunity to be heard.

Kiiza, however, believes social media gives life and meaning to freedom guaranteed under Article 28 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution.

Retired High Court Judge Justice Patrick Tabaro maintains that the internet is with no doubt an enabler to the legal practice in Uganda and world over.

He says while people are free to agree or disagree with decisions of the court, officers of court such as lawyers know where to appeal to in case they are not contented. He says often, appealing court decisions by lawyers in public is discouraged.

Justice Tabaro says he first got a glimpse of what happens in legal practice in 1974 during his clerkship in the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

He says at the time, communication was largely by post office and telephones where it was possible and radio call messages in cases of extreme urgency.

Recording of cases were manual in courts according to justice Tabaro. He further discloses that it was not until 1986 that lawyers started undertaking written submissions in courts, enabled by the technological advancement and access to computers.

Tabaro advises that lawyers stick to the ethics of the profession in order to avoid clashing and abusing the principles of law which they are trained to uphold.

Henry Rwaganika, a Senior Advocate with Rwaganika & Baku Advocates also acknowledges that internet might be a disruption to the legal practice if not properly used.

Isaac Kimaze Semakadde, an advocate with Center for Legal Aid (CLA) says advocates do not shed off their constitutional rights to freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of conscience at the gates of the courthouse.

Ssemakadde contends that the system of recruitment, sanctions and rewards for judicial officers in Uganda is entirely secretive, broken and compromised by the Executive Branch, which leaves advocates in some instances to use available means including social media.

He avers that while considerations of professionalism and good relations with clients, the lawyers and the judiciary usually motivate some Advocates to stay on cordial terms with the court, an Advocate who is a patriotic citizen should readily put those considerations aside the moment one is confronted with judicial misconduct.

“Accusing a judicial officer of gross violations of the Judicial Code of Conduct is a patriotic duty. I don’t think it should be sanctionable conduct,” Ssemakadde observes.

Adding that; “Because it has historically been shrouded in mystery, the Judiciary is perceived of as a “professional freemasonry.” It lacks public confidence, and ranks poorly in every anti-corruption and service delivery survey.”

In agreement with this argument is Anthony Wameli, who says the Courtroom has been widened by social media, the internet and ICTs which means that courts and its officers must live up to this disruption.

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“That as you sit and deliberate in any particular court, just know that someone in Kotido, someone in Kampala, someone in Kalangala is a party to those proceedings because they will at the end of the day know what you ruled, and how you ruled and the reasons you gave for and against the ruling,” Wameli argues.

He further states that every lawyer has to wake up and embrace technology and various tools because times have gone of practising law only in courtrooms.

Wameli contends that had it not been for social media uproar, the evictions that saw hundreds of families lose their property on a 75-acre piece of land in Lusanja village in Kasangati Town Council in Wakiso district would have gone unnoticed.

He says social media has amplified the voices of the people who are denied justice in conventional means, by bringing them to the attention of relevant authorities. “We are advocates even beyond the courts,” Wameli argues.

Timothy Kakuru, the one of the lawyers at Barefoot Law, says it is important for lawyers not to go against justice, fairness and equality while using social media.

Barefoot law is a Ugandan law firm that uses social media and other technology to help people cut through the haze of misinformation surrounding the laws that govern them.

“If I have a following of 1million people and you speak and you have a following of maybe two people, people may see what I have said but will not see what you have said because on social media you can overwhelm. In the court of public opinion, the person who speaks loudest is the one who will be listened to,” Kakuru discloses.

Kakuru observes that judicial officers enjoy judicial immunity and that whereas it is every citizen’s right to speak freely, this is at a risk of exposing judges to too much scrutiny and attacks from the public.