BarefootLaw: using digital tools to make justice accessible for all

In November 2018 BarefootLaw became one of the first grantees of Wehubit. Their proposal focusing on Ugandan women and their right to access legal aid received 315,000 Euro.

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In this interview Gerald Abila (Executive Director) and Michael Kwizera (Director of Strategy) bring us up to speed on the latest developments and take the time to reflect upon the starting days of BarefootLaw.

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What is BarefootLaw?

Gerald: Barefoot Law is a not for profit organisation that started in 2012. We wanted to make law and justice accessible  for everyone. Think of it as a drug administered to treat an ailment, but in this case, the law to curb injustice.

In order to do this, we also needed to reach out to people living in rural areas, as they often face injustices because they don’t know their rights and don’t have access to legal assistance. We asked ourselves, how can we get in touch with them? In the end, we decided to work with easy to use digital tools, like Facebook and SMS.

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Michael: When people have access to legal advice they will know how to solve their problems.

The concept that started off in 2012 as a Facebook page on a single 3G phone, has grown step-by-step to receiving awards as big as the King Baudouin African Development Prize in 2017. You can follow our journey through our website: https://barefootlaw.org/about-us/our-history/

 

What inspired the concept?

Gerald: While I was a university law student and attending court proceedings, I realised the situation looked hopeless. No one seemed to know their rights, and how to make use of the law, even for simple matters. It made me understand the need to find a solution to address this ignorance on legal matters.

Michael: Through BarefootLaw we also want to contribute to  SDG16, ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions’. For us it was a matter of answering the question, “how do we make justice accessible to all?”

 

You started of using SMS and Facebook but have since then invested in different digital tools. How do you integrate technology in your work today?

Gerald: We created a mobile technology platform that minimises the cost of universal access to legal advice, basic human rights, and justice.

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Michael: We use a two-way communication system. We have LawOnline, LawText, LawVoice, LawConnect, LawRadio, and LawOutreaches

LawOnline includes reaching out for legal support via our Website, Email and Social Media platforms (Facebook and Twitter).

LawText harnesses the use of SMS. This works with any kind of phone. Simply go to your SMS platform, type LAW; leave a space; then your question and send it to 6115. This service is free. We then receive your question and a team of lawyers respond promptly.

LawVoice on our Interactive Voice Response platform involves the use of our call centre that is toll free.

With LawVoice, users are able to gain audio legal information by dialing 0800 220 000, making a language selection and picking a topic they would like information on. Beneficiaries are also able to leave voice messages with their questions.

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LawConnect helps people receive legal counsel outside of BarefootLaw. We work with a network of lawyers with different types of expertise outside of our organisation to provide legal support to some of our beneficiaries who require specialised help. We then follow up to see progress and eventual closure of the matter.

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How is barefoot law different from  other law firms?

Gerald: We provide legal assistance to users with as close to zero cost for users as possible (only the cost of data where applicable). Through the use of technology, we reach a significant number of people with much fewer resources.

We measure our impact based on legal information and knowledge to reach out, receive, process, resolve and close cases.

 

How do Ugandans on the country side discover BarefootLaw and contact you?

Gerald: There are several ways in which persons in rural areas can contact BarefootLaw.

The first is through LawOutreach; where we go to the communities and directly interact with people and provide sensitisation and training on the law, and on how to utilise BarefootLaw tools to get legal support.

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Secondly, we carry out sensitisation and training through radio programs. They have a wide coverage on the countryside

 

Which type of legal questions do you get the most?

Michael: Gender based violence, domestic issues, land and property matters top the list.

Gerald: Often these are deeply interlinked.

 

Can you give an example ?

Gerald: In 2014, we were contacted by Kintu (not real name), he was desperate to hear what the law had to say about his case. His 13-year-old sister had been sexually assaulted by a 24-year-old man. The police had arrested the aggressor but convinced the victim’s mother to negotiate a deal with the him and his family. Kintu was against this, wanting to have justice served for his sister. His mother, however, agreed to a settlement with the accused’s family. With this, the police deemed the case closed and released the accused from their custody.

Kintu reached out to BarefootLaw in desperation wondering if there was more that could be done about this case. He hoped that the case could be taken to court as a criminal case without the involvement of law enforcement, whose support he felt he could not rely on at the time.

He reached out to BarefootLaw and sought our advice on the matter. We informed him that in order to pursue a case he would have to go to the District State Attorney’s office and persuade them on his conviction to proceed with criminal case. Kintu later informed us that the office allowed to hear the case. He kept consulting us throughout the progress of the case.

About seven months after the sexual assault of his sister, Kintu informed us the accused had admitted to committing the offence and was sentenced to three years in prison. Kintu thanked us for helping him get justice for his sister.

Michael: That is one of many many cases we have handled. We intervene in several disheartening cases. People are in dire need of understanding the law. That way they can help themselves.

 

How is the Wehubit program supporting you?

Gerald: Wehubit supports our outreach program for two years to help us connect with women in rural communities. We offer them  a first line of legal support in terms of access to knowledge and mediation.

Michael: Our strategic plan 2018-2021 focuses on demonstrating use of digital technology in rural areas to address digital divide and gender divide.

 

Barefootlaw in numbers:

Barefootlaw has about 89,000 direct beneficiaries and 560,000 indirect beneficiaries. The target is to reach 2 million people by 2021.

  • 450,000 people per month receive legal information to their specific case.
  • Continuous, free legal support to more than 3,000 small business owners.

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