Offenders in need of justice: a critical analysis of the right to legal representation for children in conflict with the law in Uganda
This study highlights the history of the child rights regime in relation to Uganda’s legal system and implementation framework, including the right to legal representation for children. Uganda has made tremendous steps towards domesticating international child justice standards by adopting child friendly laws. The Children Act Cap 59 amended in 2016 heralds the child friendly standards. Although the study found the existence of a fairly well-established legal system to guarantee the right of children in conflict with the law to legal representation, it is also clear that the right is often rarely observed due to inadequate implementation of the law, poor planning, corruption and competing priorities. The study also finds that the normative principle of the right to legal counsel has not alleviated the plight of children mainly because it is not a national priority to ensure that children are handled in a friendly manner. It is clear that many child justice standards remain on paper, resulting into immense abuse and violation of children’s rights witnessed by lengthy pretrial detention, the abuse of due process safeguards, astronomical orders and numerous irreparable damages to children in conflict with the law. The rights at stake include: the right of the child to be handled outside the formal justice system, the award of restorative as opposed to punitive orders, the right to bail, the right to be detained separately from adults and timely justice. The study particularly highlights the evidence of the justice system’s inadequate response to children in conflict with the law in the absence of reliable legal services through a review of the sentencing pattern of children in conflict with the law. In the year 2013, 98% of sentences for petty offences ranged between two to three. This is tilted towards the higher side designated for capital offences contrary to the threshold set in the Children Act. The study notes the existence of a robust and progressive legal framework at the international, regional and national levels in relation to the rights of the child. In essence the study speaks to the existence of a gap between the law and practice. Moving forward, the study provides strategies, proposals and recommendations aimed at the more complete realization of the right to legal representation. The need for strengthening procedural laws in relation to juvenile offenders is highly recommended in order to guarantee the right to legal counsel, consistent application of the normative standards, intensify the awareness of the right to legal representation, use of alternatives to detentions including diversion, intensive 13 training of justice stakeholders and increased funding of the child justice component. Ultimately, addressing system weaknesses using the system-wide perspective is essential.