The Legal Aid Forum, in partnership with Oxfam and with the financial support of DFID, implemented a project entitled “Citizen Monitoring of the Justice Sector in Rwanda” which was designed to assess the current framework of interaction between justice institutions and citizens using feedback collected from citizens through ICT, and suggest possible actions for improvement. The project was developed to increase the responsiveness of Rwanda’s justice services towards the concerns of citizens, especially women, regarding the provision of justice services.
Enumerators collected responses from 5, 503 respondents from all 30 districts in Rwanda. The results of this survey showed that Rwandans, in general, provided positive feedback on the legal aid services they have received. However, there are still some areas to be improved.
This is the story of Simeon Nziruguseswa. He lives in Rukomo village, Gatare cell, Mukamira Sector, Nyabihu District, in the Western Province. His case is about his siblings’ claim that they owned his land.
Simeon’s Day in Court
In 2013, Simeon’s siblings wanted to claim land that legally belonged to him. They claimed that the land belonged to them and not to Simeon. Simeon took his case to the local authorities who then referred the case to an Abunzi committee, where Simeon won the case.
Simeon’s siblings appealed the Abunzi decision to the courts. Simeon’s siblings hired an attorney for the court hearing, but Simeon did not have any legal assistance. He had never encountered any legal issues in his life and, feeling apprehensive to hire a lawyer, he decided that he could manage his case on his own. In court, he explained his grievances and presented his evidence: he had documents proving that he was the rightful owner of the land.
The court made a decision right away. He won his case and was reaffirmed as the rightful owner of the land. His siblings did not appeal the court’s decision. After the case was resolved, Simeon went to the authorities to acquire documents that proved once and for all that he was the owner of the land.
Simeon’s land dispute was resolved in less than a month. Fortunately, Simeon did not have to spend much money fighting his case. He took on the daunting task of representing himself so he did not have to pay attorney’s fees, and because he lived within walking distance of the District offices, he did not have to spend money on transportation. Simeon is satisfied with the way in which the local authorities handled his case and with the justice system overall.
Land disputes in Rwanda
Cases involving land disputes are fairly common in Rwanda. Approximately 19% of all civil cases are related to land disputes. In the Western Province, where Simeon lives, around 19% of cases involved land disputes.
As a part of the Citizen Monitoring of the Justice Sector in Rwanda project, respondents were asked to list at least two aspects of land law. Nationally, 36% of survey respondents were not familiar enough with land laws to answer the question. The most common aspect of the law with which respondents were familiar (39%) was that land must be registered and the owner must be issued title. Consequently, citizen knowledge of land law in Rwanda is quite limited.
However, even with limited knowledge of land law and the justice system, Simeon was able to represent himself in a court of law and win his case. It is crucial that all Rwandans know basic tenets of land law to be able to protect their rights inside and out of court.
As a result of cases like Simeon’s, LAF recommendations include:
The Ministry of Justice should empower MAJ staff to increase their ability to perform outreach campaigns to local communities and raise awareness of the legal aid services MAJ offers and on rights in general.
Government entities should increase their use of radio and television outreach programs to educate citizens about laws.
Government entities such as MAJ and local authorities should improve their efforts to perform in-person outreach to communities throughout Rwanda (rural and urban areas). Given the effectiveness of in-person sensitization, LAF recommends that information be disseminated through programs such as Umuganda, Inama y’abaturage or Umugoroba w`ababyeyi.
National awareness campaigns should be conducted by using social media including YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook to distribute short videos explaining the law through skits or through legal officers explaining legal concepts.