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Challenging parliament to improve sentencing guidelines for people with mental health conditions in Uganda


Challenging parliament to improve sentencing guidelines for people with mental health conditions in Uganda

Access to justice is a fundamental human right and a critical mechanism to combat a wide range of human rights violations. Yet, in Uganda, countless individuals who lack the means to secure legal representation face an uncertain future. The predicament is particularly severe for those who have committed offences while suffering from mental illness.

A report in Lancet Psychiatry highlighted that roughly 14 million individuals, or about 32% of Uganda's population, were grappling with mental health issues in 2022. The spectrum of these illnesses varied widely, from anxiety and depression to severe mental disorders. The psychiatric services available within Uganda’s prisons and general hospitals are woefully inadequate. Consequently, people with mental health conditions who find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system—whether incarcerated, awaiting trial, or serving a sentence—often face significant delays and barriers in receiving the necessary assessments and treatments for both their mental health and legal needs. This is the case for all the individuals brave enough to be enjoined in the case to petition the court and Parliament for change. These petitioners trusted Justice Defenders to help change the trajectory for thousands who navigate the judicial system while mentally ill.  This stark reality underscores an urgent need for comprehensive reforms to address the intertwined challenges of mental health and justice.

Punishment over treatment

In Uganda, the legal framework mandates that if trial or appellate courts determine an individual is mentally incapable of participating in their defence as either a suspect or convict, judicial officers must halt court proceedings. These individuals are ordered to be held in safe custody pending further action, and a copy of their court record is sent to the relevant minister. Upon reviewing these records, the minister can direct that the accused be detained in a mental health facility or maintained in safe custody. The individual remains in this state until the court reconvenes to re-evaluate their situation or the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decides whether to continue or discontinue the legal proceedings.

The prison system, ill-equipped for mental health care, exacerbates the plight of those with mental illnesses in Uganda, where services are critically underfunded. With only 53 psychiatrists nationwide—one per million people—and just 0.78 psychiatric nurses per 100,000 individuals, accessing care is prohibitively expensive, particularly for prisoners.1 In the preliminary stages of the petition draft, one petitioner indicated that he hadn't received medication for his mental illness since 1997, and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had not restarted his trial, nor had the court reconvened his case. This glaring gap highlights the urgent need for systemic change at the crossroads of mental health and justice.

Voices of some of our petitioners

The justice system is harsh and adversarial. For many who have no legal knowledge, the odds are stacked against them. Imagine you have little to no information on the law and are battling with your mental health - the situation can be horrid. Below, some of the petitioners share their personal experiences facing the criminal justice system and its effect on their lives- years after trial. Their time of continued detention and undefined sentences leaves many helpless, anxiously awaiting an end to the ordeal.

“After regaining my senses and being told that I had killed my daughter, I was horrified. I loved my daughter…I pleaded with the Judge to allow me to accept the charges against me. Even if I was sick, what I did was wrong. I wanted so much to accept responsibility for what I had done.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                      - Byaruhanga Robert, Luzira Upper Prison

“My continued detention pending a minister’s order for twenty-eight (28) years has greatly impacted me. I have no peace. My parents died while I was in prison, and I couldn’t bury them. All my youth life has been wasted in prison; people come in, some get convicted, and get sentenced (some to death sentences), appeal and serve and leave me. Others come in the second and third time and still leave me, yet I have no expectation of leaving soon.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                      - Byamukama Alfred, Luzira Upper Prison

The basics of the petition

In 2020, Justice Defenders filed a petition with the High Court, targeting the indefinite detention of individuals with mental health challenges without explicit instructions from the Minister— a situation that left many in limbo on a possible date of release. This petition was escalated to the Constitutional Court, marking a significant step in the quest for justice.

Building upon this momentum, in 2022, our legal team, led by Canaan Nkamuhaabwa, a distinguished University of London graduate and Advocate Charlotte Andrews-Briscoe, took a bold stance by petitioning the Parliament of Uganda. This action spotlighted the plight of 35 individuals who had been caught in the throes of indefinite detention—some for as long as 28 years—without trial or sentence, all awaiting the elusive “Minister’s Orders” under the ambiguous guidelines of the Trial on Indictment Act (TIA) and the Magistrates Courts Act (MCA). Since 1997, a glaring gap in the legal framework meant no such orders had been issued, compounded by the confusion over the responsible minister, identified differently across three statutes.

 Charlotte Andrews-Briscoe(centre) and Canaan Nkamuhaabwa(right) at the Parliament of Uganda after presenting their petition to the Human Rights Committee of Parliament. 

The petition sought to pierce through this bureaucratic ambiguity by demanding:

  1. Clear identification of the responsible minister for issuing Minister’s Orders.
  2. A directive for the identified minister to issue orders for all petitioners.
  3. A legislative amendment to align the law with both the Constitution and international standards.

The ripple effects of our petition were profound:

  • The Parliament pinpointed the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs as the designated authority for Minister’s Orders.
  • Subsequently, this Minister took unprecedented action, issuing orders for all 30 incarcerated individuals highlighted in our petition, propelling their cases towards resolution.
  • A comprehensive medical assessment was ordered, leading to the release of 12 individuals found to be mentally competent. Another eight were transferred to the country’s main psychiatric hospital, with their prison warrants annulled, marking a significant step towards their rehabilitation. Ten others are on the cusp of a new chapter, awaiting court proceedings or hospital evaluation.
  • In 2023, although five more individuals were in prison, swift action led to the release of two after their orders were issued.

This journey, while challenging, has underscored the transformative power of collaboration and advocacy. By bridging divides and forging alliances with the judiciary, we have propelled significant strides towards making justice accessible for countless individuals marginalised due to their mental health and systemic inefficiencies. Our ongoing dialogue with the Minister of Justice aims to act as a catalyst to further legal reforms, enhancing the judicial ecosystem's fairness and inclusivity.

Over a decade of dedication to advocacy has affirmed our belief: everyone deserves the dignity of sharing their story and being heard and understood within a just legal framework. Our work continues, driven by the conviction that justice, tempered with compassion and understanding, can truly be a reality for all.

Learn how our paralegals have reformed the criminal justice system in Kenya, ensuring people with mental illness are protected under the law.

If you would like to join our community and support our mission connect with us here.

*Names petitioners anonymised to maintain their privacy.


1A Lancet Psychiatry correspondence reported that approximately 14 million people out of a population of 43.7 million, or about 32.0%, were affected by mental illness in 2022. This prevalence was higher than previous national estimates, which stood at 24.2%