In Uganda, around 8.9 million people live below the national poverty line. Which is more than 21 per cent of the population.
For 43-year-old James Magezi, having a job as a primary school teacher wasn't enough to ensure he could look after his family. To provide food for his children, James had to work on his farm in Kasambya county.
His land was essential for him to meet the needs of his family as he often had to sell some of his produce to be able to buy other daily necessities.
So when sudden issues around ownership arose, life for James and his family took a whole new turn.
In Uganda, people in positions of power are sometimes able to take advantage of others with less money in order to take control of their property. Sometimes it goes further, with allegations of criminal activities leading to families being locked up. While they wait on remand for years before their case gets heard, their land is seized.
In 2012, this was the case for James. Along with his 58-year-old mother Rosemary and his 28-year-old brother Willy, he was arrested for allegedly obtaining money by false pretence.
“I was imprisoned together with my mother and my brother. All of us were arrested on the same day and accused of committing the same offence.” James explains.
“My uncle, who was the complainant in the case, had an interest in buying our land which we didn’t accept. He then hatched a plan that the three of us obtained money from him by false pretence and this is how we ended up in prison.
“I tried to appeal against my conviction, but all failed. I had to spend all my sentence in prison, though my mother and brother were released eight months before me.”
The lack of meaningful access to justice currently impacts nearly two out of every three people worldwide. For James, Rosemary and Willy, securing the money to employ a lawyer was out of their reach. The three family members were taken to Kitwe Farm Prison where they spent six years imprisoned, before they had their case heard in court. It wasn’t until 2018 that they were convicted and sentenced to serve four more years in prison.
“During the 10 years in prison, we lost our land to intruders. We were separated from each other and above all I lost a government job as a primary teacher.” James explains.
Fortunately Kitwe Farm Prison has a Justice Defenders’ legal office, where people in prison and prison officers can learn about the law. Those with a base level of education like James, have the opportunity to enrol in our paralegal training course, which enables them to provide free legal services to fellow prisoners.
Thanks to paralegals like James, more than 33,100 clients in prisons across East Africa have been able to access legal support. Last year alone in Uganda, 1,317 people were released from prison following legal support.
“Being a paralegal in prison gave me an opportunity to be identified by the prison authorities as a capable leader," James remembers. "I was appointed a katikiro boma [ward leader] to oversee all activities of the inmates. I had the responsibility of ensuring all inmates got food and water. I guided them during farm work and ensured that there was cleanliness in the prison ward."
“I first met James in August 2020 during a visit to Kitwe Farm Prison, when I had just been recruited as a Legal Assistant by Justice Defenders," John Bosco Oryem explains. "James was already trained as a paralegal. As a new person working in the prison, I noticed James as a humble and quiet paralegal with a high level of commitment to both prison work and Justice Defenders' work. This prompted me to work closely with him to help many inmates access justice."
“I’m happy to have learnt law in prison and have worked as a paralegal. I used to write weekly reports, teach my peers on the key foundations of justice, train them on court proceedings, their right to a court bail, fair hearing, sentencing and mitigation," James explains.
"I’m now well informed and knowledgeable about the law and free. I’m also willing to continue offering legal services to the most vulnerable people if an opportunity comes my way.
“Spending 10 years in prison wasn’t fair. It was too much time, yet we still have to compensate our complainant for the damages. I’m now working as a potter just to try to put food on the table for my family and my ailing mother. As well raise money to pay the complainant”.
James is among the many voices explaining the difference between the justice people want and need, and the justice received. The global justice gap is costly – with ripple effects on communities and societies. But the cost is greatest for those of us with the least.
Learn more about our work to ensure everyone has access to justice.