On 08th November 2012, I was privileged to attend a District Chain Linked Committee meeting (DCC) in Kabale district which was chaired by His Worship Otto M. Gulamali and Her Worship Naigaga Winfred Kyobiika were among those in attendance. A brief on the establishment of the small claims courts was ranking top on the Agenda since as you may already be aware, the district was among other districts selected as a pilot area.
Small claims is basically a term used to describe a procedure which simplifies the court process used for resolving civil disputes that involve relatively small amounts of money and for this case, we are talking about less than 10 million. The Judicature (Small Claims Procedure) Rules, 2011 serve to make small claims court process more informal than the regular civil court process and thereby make it less adversarial, simpler and speedier. The procedure intends to improve access to justice by simplifying cross-border small claims in civil and commercial matters.
Compensation claims for faulty services or goods for example phones, televisions and faulty services by mechanics, builders etc, wages owed or money in lieu of notice, and disputes between landlords and tenants most specifically rent arrears are the most common types of claims that can be instituted by a natural person.
Basically, if you have fruitlessly attempted to get compensation for your damages through other means such as by demand notice, negotiations, mediations and for some reason arbitration is unfeasible, then small claims court brings you yet another option.
The small claims courts do however have some major drawbacks.
The most notable one is the fact that no lawyer is allowed in these courts for representation purposes. This raised issues as to the right to representation and the fate of young lawyers operating in upcountry jurisdictions where most disputes involve figures within the range of 10 million. In some instances, not having an attorney to speak for you can be damaging if you are not a good public speaker or generally find it tough to sustain your composure in a court environment.
The fact that the judgment of a small claim court is final and cannot be appealed against is yet another drawback.
The above mentioned drawbacks notwithstanding, small claims court do have many benefits. It provides a pretty quick process through which your case can be heard in less than 20 minutes and a judgment is entered. The entire process can be handled in a few weeks or a couple of months at the longest. One doesn’t need to acquit him/herself with much about how to impress the Magistrate or general court protocols.
You do not need to engage a lawyer to represent you and the magistrate doesn’t expect one either. However, I would strongly advise that one ought to seek legal advice from a lawyer on the validity of their claim and on what evidence they will need to prove the same. Those who can’t afford a commercial lawyer can seek the help of Legal Aid providers such as Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society and Justice Centres.
Unlike a more involved civil case, this process is inexpensive to file and process. The Magistrate will be interested to see the evidence you have to back up your case, the arguments, and then make a decision. The magistrate will simply seek to get all of the facts he/she needs from the parties to make a decision. It is that easy.
The Chair did a great job in the meeting to establish the courts but if the Judiciary which apparently is already constrained by resources is not soundly funded, the anticipated success with the small claims procedure might not be fully realized as it is in other countries.
Better still, let us study this pilot to be able to know how we can better make access to Justice real by making any necessary adjustments as guided by statistics and reality on the ground.