Justice in Rwanda, But not From the Courts

Jeanine Mukayuhi, 50, a resident of Gatsibo district in eastern Rwanda, spent a decade battling a court case with hope to recover her inherited land, but justice kept escaping into an alley. Mukayuhi became miserable, desperate and hopeless.

“The land was meant for growing food for my family, But my uncle grabbed it from me,” She says.

The angry mother sued her uncle, only the case to dried up all her savings.

She spent last penny from her harvest, accumulating to Rwf2m (about $3000), but she never gave up. “I sold all my goats and pigs to get money for tickets to attend court rulings and pay charges,” she says.

In February 2014, just as Mukayuhi was about to give up, a neighbor advised her to try the free legal service at the district.

Access to Justice Bureau’ are public legal offices offering free services through local mediators known as ‘Abunzi’, elderly people of integrity in the villages, who are trusted with ability to settle disputes fairly.

At first, Mukayuhi undermined their ability to handle her case. “I presented my case, and my uncle did too,” says Mukayuhi. Four days later, Abunzi ordered the uncle to give back the land. Mukayuhi sobbed.

Meanwhile, thousands of Rwandans are receiving justice from these grassroots courts.

Early this year, the Minster of Justice, Johnston Busingye increased court fees saying courts did not only need to raise funds to meet daily operations, but also encourage people use Ubwunzi (mediation).

With the new court fees, a person filing a case to a primary court is required to pay up to Rwf25,000 ($36.5) from Rwf2, 000 ($2.9). Fees for an intermediate court rose from from Rw4000 ($6)to Rwf50, 000 ($72).

The High Court now charges Rwf75, 000 up from Rwf6000, while the Supreme Court serges rose to Rwf100, 000, from Rwf80, 000. Minister Busingye has also allowedlaw firms to raise fees.

Cases being filed to Abunzi increase every day. “We receive 22,000 citizens seeking legal advice every year,” says Mardine Urujeni, the National Coordinator of the Justice Bureaus.

And 95% of their cases are settled, she says. Interestingly, mediators are volunteers. The government only provides training and basic facilities such as bicycles to facilitate their movements. But they are Mukayuhizi’s gods. “I now live peacefully with my uncle,” she says.