Legal aid clinic in Rwanda: "The telephone helpline is a great tool"
Revisiting the winner of the Societal Impact Award 2018
Utrecht University's Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance annually awards the Societal Impact Award. The prize is awarded in two categories, to employees and to students. In 2018, the impact prize for employees went to the Initiatives for Peace and Human Rights Foundation (SIPHR), for setting up a legal aid clinic in Huye, Rwanda. Meanwhile the law shop has since been running for several years – and successfully. Paulien de Morree – who was then a university lecturer in constitutional law and human rights – presently works at the Council of State, but she is still involved with the foundation. She explains that the legal clinic has now also set up a telephone channel. "It is often difficult for people living in remote areas to travel to the legal aid office. For them, even after the lockdown and restrictions, the telephone helpline is a godsend."
The prize money was used to buy desks, office chairs and a printer for the then-new office in Huye, where Rwandan law students – assisted (pro bono) by experienced lawyers – provide free legal advice. Many cases that come to the legal clinic concern conflicts between citizens, over ownership of land or family law, Pauline explains.
“SIPHR is mainly engaged in fundraising in the Netherlands for projects of our partner organisation iPeace in Africa. But if the opportunity arises, we also make a substantive contribution. In the past, for example, Annemarieke Beijer [chair of SIPHR and also a former lecturer at UU] and I participated as a jury member in the moot court on international humanitarian law and human rights, which our partner organisation yearly organises for students in the Great Lakes region.”
“In recent years, in terms of fundraising, we have mainly focused on the law clinic in southern Rwanda. That is also where we spent the money we won in 2018. The legal clinic continues to provide free legal aid to vulnerable justice seekers. During the pandemic, we faced new challenges. During the lockdowns in Rwanda, we could not receive legal seekers at the legal aid office. At the same time, the demand for legal advice and legal aid remained high. Moreover, we saw an increase in the number of enquiries related to the rights of women, in particular in the light of domestic violence.”
“With financial contributions from the Netherlands and elsewhere, we managed in those days to set up a telephone number where the legal aid clinic could be reached free of charge. This was such a success that we kept it going even after the pandemic. It is often difficult for people living in remote areas to travel to the legal aid office. For them, even after the lockdown and restrictions, the telephone helpline is a godsend. This is a project we will continue to focus on in the coming years.”
Only when people know what their rights are can they appeal to them. Often, there is still unfamiliarity with what people are entitled to. Inequality and injustice therefore persist.
Extending legal aid – a challenge
“The idea of a legal clinic is not new, as there exist several in Rwanda (including those from Legal Aid Forum), partly in partnership with the government. Legal clinics would also be useful elsewhere in the region, and certainly a telephone legal clinic. However, because of the political and social unrest in Burundi and the DRC – countries where iPeace is present as well – it is not easy to set something up there. Moreover, fundraising for even one legal aid office is difficult. The legal clinic does tremendous work, but its output is not very tangible. It seems easier to raise funds or donations for a project where every contribution can provide another child with medicine or buy an extra chicken. Financially, too, this is why the project has not succeeded in expanding so far. But donations are always welcome and will be spent well!”
Practical experience for law students
“My impression is that law school in Rwanda is good in itself, but the facilities and possibilities are simply less than in our country: less money, less staff at a PhD level, less extensive library, fewer research possibilities. Also, the training is often on the theoretical side. With a part-time job at the legal aid clinic, for example, students also gain valuable practical experience that they do not always get enough of in the training. Also, our partner organisation in Rwanda provided law students with training in which they learned to deal with sensitive legal issues in the areas of sexual and gender-based violence, family law and criminal law.”
Legal awareness often less than thought
Can we draw lessons from this project for Dutch practice? “What I admire is the emphasis at the law centre on education. Besides providing legal aid to those seeking justice, the legal aid clinic also regularly provides education, for example lectures or workshops on inheritance law, family law or criminal law. Often, there is still unfamiliarity with what people are entitled to. Inequality and injustice therefore persist. Only when people know what their rights are can they appeal to them.”