Having been in conflict with the law himself, and having experienced the pain people who are poor go through trying to access justice, William Okumu joined Justice Defenders as a paralegal before pursuing a law degree through the University of London’s international programme.
Okumu is now a legal officer at Justice Defenders, a non-profit organisation founded in 2007, which has operations in 34 prisons in Kenya, Uganda and the Gambia. He is based at the organisation’s Makadara office – their first legal office outside a prison – which offers free legal services to the community.
“I got into conflict with the law and then met people worse off than me; helping them access justice is what motivates me. Our focal point at Justice Defenders is not ensuring a person is convicted or acquitted, but rather ensuring that they can access justice,” Okumu explained.
Justice Defenders’ model is to equip the accused, inform the indicted, educate the incarcerated and take the law to the margins of society to uproot the unjust, with a dream of a day where no one is punished or imprisoned without telling their side of the story. Okumu is a product of Justice Defenders’ project of training paralegals and lawyers within defenceless communities to provide legal services for themselves and others.
“No single day passes without us receiving information of people facing injustice. These are illiterate people who face learned magistrates and prosecutors and end up going to prison because they don’t have legal representation,” said Okumu.
At Justice Defenders, he says, they collaborate with prison authorities in Kenya to identify the most vulnerable people in the system, some of whose cases they take up on a pro bono basis, while others are enrolled for paralegal training to equip them with legal knowledge to defend themselves.
Justice Defenders also facilitates virtual court cases for incarcerated people, and participates in Court Users Committees to enhance accessibility to justice for vulnerable groups.
Through their community outreach programmes, Okumu says, Justice Defenders helps people understand the justice system to avoid being in conflict with the law, and promotes alternative dispute resolution.
“Poor people within the communities go through so many injustices. People don’t understand the criminal justice system, and sometimes they use it to settle scores. Someone being framed for committing a crime may end up going to prison because of poverty,” Okumu explained.
To enable more people to access justice, Justice Defenders collaborates with the courts and prisons to get referrals of cases like mothers with young babies, people with mental health conditions, and children in remand homes.
The organisation has had a radical impact on building community capacity within the criminal justice system, with 427 incarcerated people and prison officers being trained as paralegals to run legal services in prisons. More than 100 000 people in prison have received free legal services since the organisation’s inception, and 37 000 people have been released, with 59 incarcerated people and prison officers graduating with a University of London law degree.
Justice Defenders is now enhancing the provision of higher legal education in defenceless communities while advancing their mission, by partnering with local institutions of higher learning such as Strathmore University in Kenya.
Okumu says to help bridge the gap to accessing justice, there should be more public sensitisation, security agents should be friendlier to people living in poverty, and the government should encourage more lawyers to offer pro bono legal services to incarcerated peoples.
Justice Defenders was recently shortlisted for the Civil Society Organization of the Year award in the Nairobi Legal Awards.
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