During the guerilla war that took place in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) of 1981-86, Resistance Councils were established to mobilise people as well as resolve disputes in areas dominated by rebels. In 1987, when the country was undergoing decentralisation, the Resistance Council Judicial Statute of 1988 granted judicial authority to the Resistance Councils and renamed them Local Councils (LCs) (Khadiagala 2001).
By granting LCs judicial authority, the NRM sought ‘to foster participatory democracy and political inclusiveness’ (Khadiagala 2001, p.64.). The mandate required the Local Councils to conduct meetings with community members regularly and address problems collectively. At that time, the formal judiciary in the country was in the process of being restored. In their absence, Local Council Courts filled the gap of unmet justice needs of the people in Uganda (World Bank 2009).
Over time, the Local Councils became an alternative to the traditional, adversarial approach of the formal court system. Their primary objective was to enable popular justice that emphasises indigenous values of communal harmony, cooperation, compromise and conciliation (Khadiagala 2001, p.64) . Local Council Court members or judges therefore were given the flexibility to adjudicate cases using common sense and wisdom (Khadiagala 2001, p.56). Local norms and social ties influence the sanctions imposed by Local Council Court members (Khadiagala 2001, p.64). The involvement of community members made Local Council Courts more accessible and affordable, especially for the citizens living in rural areas.
We chose Local Council Courts as an example of an informal justice system that delivers people-centred justice for these reasons and more. As we will see below, the model of the Local Council Courts is user-friendly. They have been designed to suit the needs of the majority of the people in Uganda. The widespread usage of Local Council Courts in Uganda distinguishes them from informal justice systems that often operate in small geographies.
For the purpose of collecting data for this case study, we tried to contact members of Local Council Courts, government functionaries that oversee their administration and development, members of civil society organisations and academics. Unfortunately, most of the stakeholders were hard to establish contact with. Very often, stakeholders did not take ownership of this justice system. Some stakeholders were willing to share their experience of working with Local Council Courts, but had expertise only in certain domains and were unable to give us a holistic view of Local Council Courts. Similarly, literature on Local Council Courts is scant. Therefore, lack of adequate data posed a limitation while developing this case study.
Yet, we present this case study because we believe that there is much to learn from what we do know. In the below sections, we summarise, synthesise and examine the strengths and weaknesses of this unique dispute resolution mechanism as it exists today, with the hope that justice workers can build further on it and perhaps sketch a roadmap to consolidate the position of alternative, community-based justice services such as these that exist elsewhere in the world and are better suited to deliver justice than any other justice system.
The 2006 Local Council Courts Act led to formation of Local Council Courts in Uganda at the village (LC1), parish (LC2), town (LC3), division (LC4) and sub-county (LC5) level. The Ministry of Local Government oversees the functioning of Local Council Courts. Members or judges of the Local Council Courts are residents of the locality the LCC has jurisdiction over. Members of Local Council Courts may or may not have academic qualifications but it is essential that they are highly respected in the community, persons of integrity, have a high moral character, and speak the local language. Decisions of Local Council Courts derive their legitimacy from the fact that members of LCC are influential figures in the community (Government of Uganda 2006).
Unlike the time-consuming manner in which cases are adjudicated in formal justice systems, procedures in Local Council Courts are not complex. The Local Council Courts use the local language rather than English: the working language of the formal court system. Both factors enable the delivery of speedy and user-friendly justice. Disputing parties have to represent themselves before the Local Council Courts in their community, or nominate a person who can speak on their behalf. Representation by lawyers is not permitted (Ibid).
The Local Council Courts provide relief to victims in the form of reconciliation, compensation, restitution, costs, apology, fine, declaration or any other recourse deemed appropriate by law and social norms (Ibid).
Local Council Court members are paid a fee of 10,000 shillings (2.3 euros) for every session they participate in by the government. The party approaching the LCC is also required to pay a nominal fee, which varies depending on the type of grievance for which the plaintiff seeks resolution (Ibid).
Local Council Courts are linked to the formal system through a system of appeals from the village court through to the Magistrates courts: decisions of the village executive committee court (LC I) can be appealed to the parish executive committee court (LC II). Appeals from there are possible to the sub-county executive committee court (LC III), and in turn to the Chief Magistrates Courts (Ibid).
Nationwide surveys assessing the justice needs of Ugandans conducted in 2016 and 2020 show that the most pressing justice problems that Ugandans face are related to land, crime, family, employment and neighbours (HiiL 2016; HiiL 2020). The Local Council Courts deal with these very problems, along with a few others. To illustrate, as mandated by the Local Council Courts Act 2006, the Local Council Courts deal with civil matters ranging from debts, contracts, property damage, trespassing, and customary matters such as land issues, family disputes, identification of customary heirs, underage pregnancies or elopement among women, and customary bailment. They also deal with minor criminal matters including assault and battery (Khadiagala 2001).
Although the above mentioned surveys indicate that these are the most pressing problems in the everyday lives of Ugandans, these problems were not identified or mapped in a systematic way. Rather, they were identified based on common knowledge of justice problems that exist in Uganda.
In theory, the Local Council Courts were meant to provide an alternative dispute resolution mechanism to women and the poor and marginalised section of the population who cannot afford and access the formal justice system. However, studies indicate that elites in the community use this community based justice service members of the Local Council Courts for their own benefit (Rugadya and Nsamba as cited in Kemigisa and Namara 2018). Moreover, patriarchal relations make women vulnerable to gender biases even while seeking justice from members of the Local Council Courts, as they are often composed of men (Ibid). The Local Council Courts Act 2006 reserves two seats for women in the Local Council Court as a way to ensure gender justice, but no other measures were undertaken to address the problems that women and marginalised people face (Government of Uganda 2006). Thus, the problems of vulnerable sections of the population were not measured or mapped in a satisfactory manner.
The Local Council Courts were established to deliver outcomes to people that align with the principles that Ugandan society is based on: communal harmony, cooperation, compromise and conciliation (Khadiagala 2001). In that regard, as per the 2006 Act, the remedies that are available to people who seek help from the Local Council Courts are restitution, compensation, reconciliation, community service, apology, and warning not to engage in future harmful behaviour. These remedies or outcomes that Local Council Courts offer were not based on research per se, but on intimate knowledge of principles that underlie Ugandan society.
Additionally, apart from a broad framework of principles, people also want specific types of outcomes for each type of justice problem. For example, in a land justice problem, people may want multiple outcomes such as fair ownership of land, compensation for loss of income, agreement on use of land and so on. In case of a family justice problem, people may desire outcomes along the lines of secure housing and income for all, fair division of property and debts, no violence, respectful communication and so on (1).Local Council Courts did not map such outcomes for the different types of justice problems that they deal with. This can be explained by the fact that focus on outcomes that people want from justice processes is a recent recommendation that has emerged in international development. So it does not come as a surprise that Local Council Courts did not conduct research to identify the outcomes that people want from justice processes.
Local Council Courts did not undertake assessments to determine whether existing justice processes deliver the outcomes that people want. As it is, the formal justice system in Uganda was known to be inaccessible to most of the citizens in the country for a number of reasons.
First, it is common knowledge that it follows complex procedures. Given that the majority of the people are unfamiliar with the ways of the justice system, making it difficult for them to keep up with the processes. The formal justice system also functions in adversarial ways, departing from local values of reconciliation, compromise and communal harmony.
Second, court proceedings are conducted in the English language. Although English has been recognised as one of the official languages in 1962 after Uganda gained independence from Britain, it is still a language of the elite and privileged. The majority of the Ugandan population speaks indigenous languages such as Luganda, Swahili, Bantu, Nilotic. All in all, 40 languages are used in Uganda – none of which have been adopted by the formal justice system (with the exception of English). Thus, language poses another barrier to accessing the formal justice system. Third, the costs associated with lawyers and the formal courts further discourage people from approaching the formal justice system (Ministry of Local Government Uganda 2014).
There is little evidence of a formal system that regularly monitors outcomes delivered by the Local Council Courts. In the coming few sections, we will discuss studies conducted by academics, local civil society organisations and international development organisations that track whether the Local Council Courts deliver outcomes that people need to move on do exist, but these studies are time-bound assessments and not a systematic way of monitoring outcomes.
Uganda’s Ministry of Local Government – with the help of local civil society organisations – has introduced evidence-based interventions directed towards standardising and formalising the functioning of Local Council Courts in the country. Although evidence indicates that these interventions have brought about an improvement in the outcomes that justice processes deliver to people, the explicit focus of most of the interventions was on the process of delivering justice and not outcomes (Kemigisa and Namara 2018).
As a result, the interventions do not focus on providing people the outcomes that they want – corruption-free Local Council Court, fair adjudication of cases, no gender bias (Khadiagala 2001; World Bank 2009, p.46). So the interventions introduced by Local Council Courts are evidence-based but do not consistently deliver the justice outcomes that people look for.
Literature indicates that various international organisations such as the UNDP, Legal Aid Basket Fund, UNCDF, Nordic Consulting Group, Defence for Children International (DCI) have conducted an evaluation of the functioning of Local Council Courts in collaboration with the Ministry of Local Government over the years. Based on these evaluations, the government of Uganda – along with international aid organisations such as UNDP, UNCDF – has taken steps to improve the functioning of the Local Council Courts (UNDP 2013; Kemigisa and Namara 2018; Khadiagala 2001). Civil society organisations based in Uganda such as Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) and International Law Institute- African Centre for Legal Excellence (ILI-ACLE) have also supported capacity building initiatives for the Local Council Courts (Kemigisa and Namara 2018).
The evidence gathered in these evaluations indicates that Local Council Courts lack standardised, up-to-date operational guidelines. The members of Local Council Courts are not adequately trained and are unaware of their rights and responsibilities as well as basic laws (Ibid). To remedy these issues, The Ministry of Local Government along with the support of UNDP, DGF, ILI-ACLE developed the Local Council Court Guidelines and a training manual for LCC members that is available in nine local languages. A Training of Trainers was also conducted at the district level and awareness campaigns were undertaken through local radio stations (Ibid).
The trainers trained by the MoLG along with the Democractic Governance Facility (DGF) and International Law Institute – African Centre for Legal Excellence successfully trained nearly 90 percent of the LC3 members across Uganda. The training included topics such as the role of Local Council Courts in administering justice, legal framework of Local Council Courts, human rights enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda, principles, ethics and standards of judicial conduct, fee structure, jurisdiction, quorum of Local Council Courts, language of court, role of witnesses, proceedings and judgement, remedies and appeal. Apart from training programmes, efforts were made to streamline the maintenance and collection of records and registers maintained by members of the Local Council Courts throughout the country (Kemigisa and Namara 2018).
Training was also given on essential laws such as the Children’s Act and Domestic Violence Act and on laws governing customary land. To increase the capacity of members of the Local Council Courts in resolving justice problems of people, mediation training was also provided. In another instance, the UNDP supported capacity building of Local Council Courts through legislative enactments and developing regulations and manuals and providing training for local councillors in Uganda (UNDP 2013).
A study conducted by DCI in 2000 showed that Local Council Courts did not prioritise cases pertaining to petty crimes committed by children. Instead, these cases were channelled to the formal justice system. This resulted in children receiving custodial sanctions rather than being treated with rehabilitative measures. To address this problem, DCI conducted training and sensitisation of Local Council Court members (UNHCR n.d.).
HiiL made efforts to contact institutions in Uganda who are responsible for overseeing the functioning of Local Council Courts but were unsuccessful in reaching them. Based on the limited evidence that we could collate from interviews with Local Council Courts members, civil society organisations and academics, and the available literature, it appears that Local Council Courts do not use outcome-based monitoring to improve interventions or replace ineffective interventions. Rather, they have focused on improving the procedure of delivering justice.
Literature as well as interviews conducted by HiiL indicates that the processes of the Local Council Courts are not standardised nor institutionalised (Kemigasa and Namara 2018; A. Ballamu, personal communication, November 19, 2020; LASPNET NGO, personal communication January 12, 2020). Members of the Local Council Courts often lacked knowledge of their own roles and responsibilities as well as that of laws that govern common justice issues such as land and family problems. Therefore, the interventions that have been implemented focused on building capacity of the LCC members and formalising LCC processes. Very few interventions directly train members of Local Council Courts on delivering better outcomes to people.
Local Council Courts have become a fixture in the judicial system throughout Uganda. On average, each Local Council Court handles two cases per week. This means that close to 80,000 cases per week are heard and resolved in these courts across the country. Overall, 80 percent of Ugandans access justice through Local Council Courts (Ministry of Local Government in Uganda 2014).
A nationwide assessment of justice needs of citizens in Uganda revealed that Local Council Courts are present even in the most remote areas of the country and that the majority of Ugandans seek information and advice from their social networks and the Local Council Courts (Local Council Courts). People approach Local Council Courts to resolve problems related to crime, justice, land, employment and family disputes (HiiL 2016; HiiL 2020).
We tried to obtain data on the funding model of Local Council Courts via primary as well as secondary research but we were unable to find any substantial evidence. The only document that mentions sources of funds that are available to Local Council Courts is the Local Council Courts Act 2006. As mentioned before, the Act makes provision for user fees that are to be paid by the plaintiff. The amount to be paid depends on the nature of the justice problem (Government of Uganda 2006).
Interviews conducted with members of the Local Council Courts at the village level as well as literature indicate this amount is not sufficient to cover the expenses incurred by the Local Council Court while adjudicating a case (A. Ballamu, personal communication, November 19, 2020; Kemigasa and Namara 2018). Moreover, people who seek intervention of Local Council Courts in their justice problems do not have financial capacity to cover all expenses related to the case. So the members of Local Council Courts used their personal funds to be able to meet expenditures related to cases. Local Council Courts also lack the physical infrastructure such as courtrooms and offices, resources such as stationery and human resources (ILI-ACLE as cited in Kemigisa and Namara 2018).
Information on funding models of LCs at the higher level is not available. On the basis of the evidence at hand, it can be inferred that Local Council Courts are underfunded and that they do not have a sustainable financial model.
As mentioned before, we tried to obtain data on sources of funding available to Local Council Courts via primary as well as secondary research but we were unable to find any substantial evidence. The Local Councils Courts Act 2006 makes provision for user fees, but there is no mention of public-private partnerships anywhere in literature or in primary research conducted by HiiL.
Expanding on the former, although the Local Council Courts Act requires users to contribute financially to the adjudication of their own cases and thereby partially cover for the expenses related to functioning of Local Council Courts, the users themselves lack the financial capacity to do so (A.Ballamu, personal communication, November 19, 2020; Kemigasa and Namara 2018). The term smart user contribution refers to payments taken from users over a period of time so that they are not pressed for funds at the time of experiencing a justice problem. It also includes requiring parties to the conflict who are better positioned financially to pay for costs that arise in the process of adjudication of the problem (HiiL 2020). Going by these definitions, Local Council Courts do not employ smart user contributions.
The Local Council Courts are governed by Uganda’s Ministry of Local Government but also supported by other justice institutions in the country, such as the Justice, Law and Order Society (JLOS), Uganda Law Reform Commission and so on. They are widely recognised by regulators for bridging the justice gap experienced by the poor and vulnerable, however this acknowledgement has not yet materialised into consistent and steady support to bolster the performance of Local Council Courts.
In the recent past, the capacity building initiatives spearheaded by the Ministry of Local Government and civil society organisations have supported the standardisation of Local Council Courts, but since they were done in an ad hoc and irregular manner, gains are likely to be short-lived (Kemigisa and Namara 2018). Having said that, the lack of support from regulatory systems has not prevented Local Council Courts from scaling and delivering justice to people throughout Uganda, as indicated by nationwide assessments of justice needs of Ugandans undertaken in 2016 and 2020 (HiiL 2016; HiiL 2020).
Interviews conducted with members of Local Council Courts, civil society organisations as well as literature indicates that Local Council Courts at the village (LC1)and parish level (LC2) have not been formally constituted since 2001 (A. Ballamu, personal communication, November 19, 2020; LASPENT Ngo, personal communication, January 12, 2020; JLOS 2017). While this has not kept Local Council Courts from scaling, it is indicative of the lack of support from regulatory institutions in cementing the base of Local Council Courts in Uganda’s judicial system.
Literature too, indicates that Local Council Courts have received wavering support from public institutions over the years. In its second Strategic Investment Plan (SIP) 2006-2011, JLOS identified strengthening the capacity of Local Council Courts as one of its key goals (JLOS 2006). In contrast, the third SIP of JLOS (2012-2017) only briefly mentions Local Council Courts. It speaks about giving priority to strengthening the Local Council Courts, but does not outline a detailed plan for their improvement (JLOS 2012). The fourth Strategic Development Plan 2017-2020 of JLOS speaks about re-establishing LC1, as they have not been formally constituted since 2001 which further indicates that support for Local Council Courts varied in the second decade of the 21st century (JLOS 2017).
As previously mentioned, Local Council Courts are used extensively throughout Uganda. About 80 percent of the population relies on Local Council Courts to resolve their justice problems (Ministry of Local Government in Uganda 2014). It is important to note here that the Local Council Courts have existed throughout the country despite not being formally established since 2001. As mentioned before, Local Council Courts at the village (LC1) and parish (LC2) level, where members of the Local Council Courts are elected democratically, the elections have not been conducted. As a result, members who were elected when the courts were first established have continued to serve as members. To conclude, LC1 and LC2 have become the default procedure despite lacking a formal base.
Information about the functioning of Local Council Courts at the town, division and sub-county level is not available, so it can be determined whether Local Council Courts functioning at higher levels have become a default procedure.
Another impediment to Local Council Courts becoming a default procedure is the limited capacity of Local Council Courts to enforce their decisions. When the Local Council Courts forcefully tried to enforce decisions, they risked losing support of the public. Additionally, many Local Council Courts report having a poor relationship with the police which makes it all the more difficult to enforce decisions or investigate cases. And because the members of Local Council Courts live in the same locality as the litigants, they are fearful of imposing decisions on sensitive matters (Nordic Consulting Group and Danish Embassy in Kampala as cited in World Bank 2009). Thus, the positionality of the members of the Local Council Courts although gives them familiarity with the issues being discussed, it also limits their ability to make fair and independent decisions. This can discourage people from seeking help from Local Council Courts.
Other factors that can potentially affect the ability of Local Council Courts to become a default procedure are nepotism, cronyism and bribery (Ibid). Given that the members of Local Council Courts are selected from the community, they are susceptible to favouring certain groups of people. Members at LC1 and LC2 also perform the function of executive council or elected leaders, which further raises questions on whether they can deliver justice independent of conflict of interest. The low compensation given to members pushes them to take bribes from people. All of these factors together can erode the confidence of people in Local Council Courts and potentially keep them from becoming a default procedure.
The Local Council Courts have benefitted from investment made by the Ministry of Local Government, local civil society organisations and international development organisations in justice research and development to a limited extent. Several development organisations such as the World Bank, Nordic Consulting Group, UNDP, Legal Aid Basket Fund, UNCDF, Defence for Children International (DCI) have conducted research to assess the functioning of Local Council Courts (World Bank 2009; Kemigisa and Namara 2018). As previously mentioned, this research has informed the design of interventions that built capacity of members of the Local Council Courts and standardised and formalised the functioning of Local Council Courts. In some cases, it has spurred international aid organisations such as ActionAid to provide financial support to improve the infrastructure (court rooms, stationery) available to Local Council Courts (Actionaid 2017). But this financial support has been of sporadic nature, so ascertaining its benefit to Local Council Courts is difficult.
These interventions have also not addressed all weaknesses of the Local Council Courts. For example, research indicates that members of the Local Council Courts have biases against women and vulnerable groups which the interventions that have been implemented so far have not tried to remedy (Khadiagala 2001; Rudadya & Nsamba as cited in Kemigisa and Namara 2018). Moreover, interventions are undertaken on an ad hoc basis, the gains for Local Council Courts from investment in research and development become modest, despite having much more to gain.
On the other hand, Local Council Courts have contributed to research on informal and community-based justice services in the sphere of international development. The widespread use of Local Council Courts in Uganda has prompted justice workers at the international level to start a conversation about the benefits of community justice services and their relevance in other countries where the formal justice system falls short.
HiiL’s experience of working in Uganda in 2016 and 2020 (2) indicates that leaders in the justice sector in Uganda are making efforts to strengthen the performance of Local Council Courts. But so far, little action has been taken to formulate or implement an action plan for the same. Hence, it can be said that Local Council Courts have not in the recent past benefited from skills and collaborations of justice leaders to increase access to justice.
Evidence on the contribution of Local Council Courts to high-level strategies towards people-centred justice in Uganda is not available. So it is not clear if Local Council Courts have contributed to high-level strategies towards people-centred justice in Uganda.
In the past, Local Council Courts, as mentioned before, have benefited from aid and programmatic interventions of development organisations and the Ministry of Local Government. Other than that, establishing and strengthening LCI and LCII has been mentioned as a goal in the Fourth Strategic Development Plan (2017-2020) of Uganda (JLOS 2017). Prior to that, strengthening the capacity of Local Council Courts has also been mentioned in Strategic Investment Plan 2012-2017 of Uganda (JLOS 2012).
But evidence on action taken to implement these goals is not available. To conclude, although Local Council Courts make it to high-level discussions on people-centred justice in Uganda, it is hard to ascertain if intention is being translated into action. In other words, it is not clear if Local Council Courts benefited from these high level strategies in concrete ways.
Organisations that work on justice issues at the international level often take the Local Council Courts as an example of an informal justice system that is accessible and affordable to the people. Local Council Courts have emerged as alternative justice systems and shown that grassroots organisations are also capable of delivering justice. Its roots in indigenous values of reconciliation and compromise set it apart from formal justice systems that deliver justice in adversarial ways. Therefore, in international development, Local Council Courts are perceived to be an example of a successful informal justice system that can be replicated in contexts where formal justice systems are inaccessible to the poor and vulnerable. Therefore, the inherent nature of Local Council Courts and their popularity among the people of Uganda has contributed to a paradigm shift at the international level in how people-centred justice can be delivered.
(1) For more information on outcomes to justice problems, see Problems page on the Justice Dashboard by HiiL.
(2) HiiL conducted nationwide assessments of justice needs of people in Uganda. In the process it worked with several civil society organisations and justice practitioners in Uganda.
Actionaid (2017). Strategies for Justice: Access to Justice for Women.
Government of Uganda. Local Council Courts Act 2006
HiiL (2016). Justice Needs in Uganda: Legal problems in daily life
HiiL (2020). Charging for Justice Report
HiiL (2020). Justice Needs and Satisfaction in Uganda 2020: Legal problems in daily life.
Interview with a representative of LASPNET ngo in Uganda dated January 12, 2020
Interview with Allan Balamu, a member of LC-1 in Uganda dated 19 November 2020.
JLOS (2006). Strategic Investment Plan 2006-2011.
JLOS (2017). Fourth Strategic Development Plan.
JLOS. (2012). The Third JLOS Strategic Investment Plan 2012-2017.
Kemigisa, M. and Namara, R. (2018). Capacity Building of Local Council Courts and Transformational Leadership for Policy Advocacy in Uganda, Consortium for International Management, Policy and Development.
Khadiagala, L. (2001). The Failure of Popular Justice in Uganda: Local Councils and Women’s Property Rights. Development and Change, 32, 55-76.
Ministry of Local Government (2014). Decentralisation and Local Development in Uganda;
UNDP (2013). Rule of Law and Access to Justice in Easten and Southern Africa: Showcasing Innovations and Good Practices.
UNHCR (n.d). Protecting the rights of children in conflict with the law.
World Bank, (2009). Uganda Legal and Judicial Sector Study Report.
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