Access to justice in Zambia: For sale?

law

Earlier today I read through something I wrote in January 2012. It was a short piece in response to some articles in the Zambia Weekly newspaper on law and legal representation. The articles stood out to me because they demonstrated something striking about legal representation and the subsequent lack of justice in our nation’s legal system. I have made some edits to my original write up:

Article 1: On page 3, it was reported that politician and businessman BY Mwila was suing the government for breach of contract on the Landless Corner-Mumbwa road project. Works were being carried out by his construction firm Wade Adams.

Article 2: On page 4, it was reported that former Vice President George Kunda and his wife Irene were suing Zamnet for defamation over an article it carried on the findings of a report by the committee tasked with investigating the sale of Zambia Telecommunications (Zamtel). The report said that the Kundas’ law firm, George Kunda & Company, benefitted financially from the Zamtel sale.

Article 3: On page 8, it was reported that Mulenga Sata, son of the President, was suing George Chifire, Director of the Committee of Citizens, for defamation and libel. This is in a case in which Chifire, in a newspaper article, questioned how Mulenga had managed to acquire two brand new 4×4 vehicles together valued at K1.8 billion (old kwacha), funds which he said were beyond Mulenga’s personal reach.

It is fascinating to note that the people doing the suing are rich, recognisable and well-connected across the Zambian political, corporate and legal spheres. It is particularly fascinating to observe how confidently they take to the courts. I see no major reservations! Whether these rich, recognisable and well-connected individuals are successful with their claims is a different issue, however, the whole phenomenon raises some important questions: Is access to justice in Zambia on sale? Is it the preserve of the elite? Is it elusive to the common man?

Let’s be clear: I do not have a problem with rich, recognisable and well-connected people taking to the courts if they feel that that is where their particular concerns can be addressed. It is their right as citizens of our country to do so. The sad thing however is that for many regular citizens, taking to the courts in search of justice is a complete “no-no” for a range of reasons. I can think of two at the moment: the cost of getting justice and the problem of delayed justice.

The cost of getting justice:
How many Zambians can afford a lawyer? I’d like to be educated on this issue. Do we have lawyers available (at very minimal to no cost) to those unable to afford one? If so, how well publicised is this service? I recognise that “cost” doesn’t just refer to finance. The cost (“the opportunity cost”) of a regular citizen pursuing a particular case in the courts also includes the increased likelihood of personal stress, deteriorating health, family pressure, stigmatisation by the community, and more.

The problem of delayed justice:
The court process simply takes too long. Justice is often delayed and for many even denied. This means regular citizens are less likely to call on the courts even when they may have legitimately good reasons for doing so.

At local court level we read about spouses taking each other to court over infidelity issues much more than we do the bigger sort of cases, such as a citizen suing the government. Why is that?

Consider the number of road injuries and fatalities we see regularly on our roads. It would be in order for a family agonising over the death of a loved one to sue the Road Development Agency or the Ministry of Transport. Consider too a patient at one of our health facilities wrongly diagnosed and having to face worsening health or death as a result. It would be in order for them and their families to seek compensation from the hospital authorities or the regional health board – not as a way of getting rich quickly but as a clear matter of justice. Do the more domestic, local court type cases differ in some way to the High or Supreme Court type cases? How? Somebody please educate my non-legal mind! Or maybe the majority of Zambians simply don’t have the basic knowledge of their rights as citizens, such as fair access to justice.

A common thing we see is successive governments quickly offering (often unbudgeted?) financial support and gifts to those affected by some traumatic incident – a road or hospital accident, for example. Sometimes this may take years to materialise. If the government promises to meet particular needs of the deceased’s family (children’s school fees for example), then the need to go to the courts is reduced significantly. This raises the question: should out-of-court settlements be an acceptable replacement for clear legal redress in the courts – the sort that sets the right standard of justice?

I welcome your thoughts on what I believe is a very serious matter. Thanks.

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