This article has been first published in Yorkshire Legal.
Huddersfield Law Society has been instrumental in setting up a legal advice hub for young people in Patongo, Northern Uganda who have run into trouble with the law.
The Society has helped to set up a legal aid centre after being approached by the Chance for Childhood charity. The charity, which provides rehabilitation for children who are in desperate need of counselling following a 20 years of the Lords’ Resistance Army terrorising the local population in Patongo, asked for legal help for young people who are being imprisoned with adults without any recourse to legal advice.
On average, a hundred children in Patongo are imprisoned each year with adults and are often subject to physical and sexual violence.
Following the charity’s appeal, a former refugee camp in Uganda, called Patongo, now has a legal centre set up in order to preserve children’s rights in the area.
Anne Pendlebury, a solicitor from Eaton Smith in Huddersfield visited Uganda in April 2014 with Nigel Dodds, the then chair of the Law Society charity to assess what could be done.
She said that the visit proved that there was a clear and urgent need for assistance.
“When I visited the police station I found that normal practise is for the police to assert that juveniles are 18 if they look about that age and – contrary to the usual burden of proof – it is then for the juvenile to prove otherwise,” said Pendlebury.
“I saw separate cells for male and female juveniles both equally horrible – empty of people but with bunks and mattresses. I also visited the cell for adults. There were about 20 males in there, allegedly all over the age of 18 but when we asked there were two who said (and looked like) they were under 18.”
Pendlebury was also told that young people were not being prosecuted for crimes committed during the conflict anymore but that they were in conflict with the law, in many cases due to having been extremely traumatised by their experiences.
“It is a particular problem that juveniles are placed with adult offenders because so many people have been displaced and papers, including birth certificates, have been lost or burned. Children are often thrown in to adult jails because there is only one remand home (four hours drive away in Gulu) which covers the whole region.
“Many of these young people have grown up without parental guidance or cultural values and with no or very limited education. Many are orphans, their family land having been taken away from them and there are very limited resources to support them.”
Pendlebury was equally shocked by the facilities in Gulu. She said there were not enough beds to accommodate all the children and that the remand home was a breeding ground for bullying and abuse.
John Royle, a solicitor with Ridley and Hall, was responsible for getting the project off the ground.
He said that it had been a challenging task which would not have happened without the help of his colleagues at the Huddersfield Law Society, as well as funding from the Law Society charity. He also praised the good will and support of the Uganda Law Society, headed by President Ruth Sebatindira, and the determination of Anna Mai Estrella from Chance for Childhood.
“I am delighted to be able to announce that a legal officer, Francis Okullu (pictured) and a clerk have now been appointed and the legal centre opened this week. Over the next 2 years we will be looking for long term funding for this vital work to continue,” he said.
“People may ask why we are concerned about a children’s rights project in Uganda – that charity begins at home – but the reality is that we are a wealthy nation. Uganda is not. Uganda has the fourth fastest growing population in the world. Many of these young people are vulnerable and abused. As lawyers we have a responsibility to uphold the rule of law wherever and whenever we can and I’m glad that we have been able to do something to help these vulnerable children”.