Justice for the people: The Bataka Court in Uganda resolves legal problems directly within communities

Bataka Court Model by MAKMENDE/Stuart Tibaweswa
MAKMENDE/Stuart Tibaweswa

From a young age, Gard Benda witnessed injustice. An orphan from the age of ten growing up in a marginalized community, he saw property being stolen and witnessed violent crimes.  He watched as the victims sought justice – travelling to faraway cities, borrowing money for transportation and court fees over and over again–until they eventually gave up.  ‘’Only the rich can access justice’’ became a phrase repeated in his, and countless other communities across Uganda.

These memories stayed with him as he embarked on a career as an investigative journalist, winning awards for his exposes of human rights violations and land grabbing. But this was not enough. ‘’Yes, I am reporting injustice in the media – but is this actually making a difference?’’ he asked himself.

With this mind he started World Voices Uganda, an NGO focused on peace-building and access to justice.  Their first projects focused on human rights reporting, cultural and sports activities for peace and justice and child protection but overwhelmingly what he and his colleagues were hearing from people was that they wanted somewhere to go where their legal problems could be heard and resolved.

‘’Lawyers in Uganda are expensive, based in urban areas and operate largely in English. Courts are also far away and people simply can’t afford the travel costs. ’’says Gard, ‘’So we decided to come up with a justice model that would work for people.’’

And so in 2012, they created the  Bataka Court, a court composed of ordinary citizens, based directly within communities responding to everyday legal problems.  The court consists of a panel of seven elders  – all well-respected individuals in the community who receive training in dispute resolution methods and national laws and regulations.  Hearings are held in the community – usually in the house of one of the elders and other community members can actively participate.

When they first started, Gard participated in a number of hearings to evaluate if the model was working or not. The most memorable was a 57-year-old woman who had already spent two years going to court over a small piece of land a neighbour had grabbed from her. She had run out of money to go to court and was struggling to bring up her children and grandchildren without the extra land to grow food. A neighbour told her about the Bataka Court and within 24 hours her case was resolved and her land restored.

MAKMENDE/Stuart Tibaweswa

‘’The woman was so happy,’’ says Gard, ‘’and it was at that moment that I realized that our efforts were working. The land grabbers’ intention had been for the woman to fail knowing she did not have the money to continue going to court.  But in the Bataka Court, after hearing her case, 99 per cent of the community supported her and he had no choice but to relent. He had to give her land back as well as a goat and jerry cans of porridge.  The community also forgave the land grabber.  Peace and tranquillity was quickly restored.’’

Since then the Bataka Court model has continued to grow and has improved the lives of both individuals and communities in the districts of Kakadi and Kyegegwa in Western Uganda.

‘’Bataka Court has reduced domestic violence and land disputes arising from changing demarcations’’ says Bira Vanis of Kyaterekera community.

One of the key success factors of the Bataka Court is that it enjoys legitimacy within the community and the decisions are accepted as binding based on social agreement. 

They are also very accessible. The hearings are held in local languages and the processes followed are those that people understand so they do not feel intimidated. But most importantly they are also effective and provide quick resolutions to impactful problems.  In the case of a boundary dispute, for example, the elders can visit the site on foot and discuss it directly with neighbours. On average, cases are resolved in under 72 hours.

Yusuf Kisembo who faced a similar conflict to the one mentioned by Gard above was amazed at how quickly and efficiently his case was resolved.

‘’We had a conflict over land with my neighbour – he had encroached on my land and shifted the boundary,’’ he says, ‘’I reported him to the local council court but he refused to go so I decided to try the Bataka Court since it is free.  In just one day it was resolved and both of us were content.  I am so grateful that the case ended well and in such a short time.’’

Another reason the Bataka Courts are extremely effective is that the final decision, reached by the elders, is based on consensus and aims to deliver the best possible outcomes for both parties.  The guilty party may be asked to issue a public apology, do community service or compensate the victim in kind.  Social pressure to comply is high.  This is reiterated by Peace Tukamuhebwa, a female elder of the Kyaterekera Bataka Court.

‘’Bataka Court is unique because it focuses on promoting reconciliation and unity among people,‘’ she says.

Finally if one of the disputing parties is not happy with the decision, it can be passed on to the formal justice system.  One of the key ways the Bataka Courts work well is by how they are linked to the formal justice system as well as the government-led community justice programme Local Council Courts. The two institutions not only support the Bataka Courts but also refer cases to it. This in turn has helped increase its legitimacy amongst the people.

At HiiL, we first supported Bataka Courts in 2019 through our Justice Accelerator programme. Then, in 2021, practitioners working to scale the community justice model joined the Business Resilience Programme – a HiiL initiative that was designed to ameliorate risks to justice startups caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I can testify that with support from HiiL we have been able to increase our visibility as well as expand to other areas that we were previously not able to reach,” said Gard. “The support we received was very instrumental in defining our niche, strengths, and solution for improving the model but also enhanced our capacity to shape the model and to improve clarity”. 

Today, the Bataka Courts model clearly demonstrates people-centred justice in action. It is affordable, accessible, effective and creates social harmony and reconciliation in communities. As Bataka Courts continue scaling operations across Uganda, the need for a sustainable financial model has become more and more apparent. 

“HiiL will remain a significant part of our history for uplifting the Bataka Courts as a community justice service delivery mechanism. Now, we need more Bataka Courts in more communities,’’ said Gard.

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