Location: Kampala, Uganda
Uganda’s legal system is based on English common law, but criminal defendants who can’t afford legal representation—and most can’t—aren’t appointed counsel unless they face a death sentence or life in prison.
“If you attend a court session, you will sometimes feel like shedding tears because of what these people go through,” says Kampala lawyer Gerald Abila, who in 2012 with an iPhone 3GS founded Barefoot Law, an online nonprofit that gives free legal advice to Ugandans through social media platforms such as Facebook and Skype.
Abila recognized that with more than 59 percent of the country’s population equipped with mobile phones, Barefoot Law has enormous potential to reach people in need of legal services. He and other volunteer lawyers with the group give out legal information like questions for witness cross-examinations and how to apply for bail.
According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch summary, defendants in Uganda sometimes wait nine years for trial. It’s not unusual for someone to be jailed pretrial for a time period longer than a potential sentence.
Besides legal advice, the Barefoot Law site offers employment, contract and will templates, which can be downloaded free of charge. Abila supports himself doing consultant work with businesses and law firms, as well as with public speaking and work as a law lecturer at Kampala International University, his alma mater.
Denis Kakembo, a senior tax manager at Deloitte East Africa, met Abila at Makerere University. Now living in the United Kingdom, Kakembo predicts that other professions, including medicine and engineering, will replicate Barefoot Law.
“Its niche is innovative broadcasting and outreach to the people through technology to sensitize the public about their legal rights and responsibilities,” he says. “I see many professional bodies drawing inspiration from that model.”
—Stephanie Francis Ward
• Read an extended profile of Gerald Abila
• Read more about our 2014 Legal Rebels