Next year marks the 50th anniversary of legal aid in Kenya. As the Interior Ministry and the Office of the Attorney General reinvent themselves to meet the ambitions in the Kenya Kwanza Freedoms manifesto, they can do no better than prioritising investment in Article 48 of the constitution.

Since those pioneering Kituo cha Sheria lawyers left their chambers for the informal settlements of Korogocho and elsewhere in 1973, legal empowerment programmes have transformed the lives of millions. Their legacy informs the article in our constitution that states access to justice is a fundamental right for all human beings. Globally, access to justice is also recognised in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.

Six years after the constitution was promulgated, the Legal Aid Act (2016) was passed, paving the way for establishing the National Legal Aid Service and Legal Aid Fund. Under this Act, all citizens, children, refugees, or stateless persons are eligible to receive free legal services from pro-bono advocates and paralegals drawn from legal firms, educational institutions, and civil society organisations. These services include legal education, advice, representation, and out-of-court dispute resolution or settlement.

According to access to justice studies, nearly half of the population experiences one or more legal problems every four years. These problems typically involve petty offices like liquor brewing, hustling without a licence, assault, or family-related disputes, including land matters. 63 per cent of these cases could be easily resolved with more legal literacy and advice and affordable and fair justice processes.

Despite an increase of 11 per cent in lawyers on average each year and a decade of judicial reforms, most people still find accessing justice through our courts too complicated to comprehend, costly or slow. While the Jubilee Administration was able to widen motorway and railway lanes, they neglected to invest in the pathways provided by the Legal Aid Act towards securing justice for millions. Current efforts by the pro-bono lawyers and paralegals coordinated by the Law Society of Kenya, Paralegal Society of Kenya, CrimeSiPoa, Legal Resources Foundation, and the Social Justice Centres, among others, are too small to match current demand.

Last month’s International Commission of Jurists-Kenya (ICJ-K) study calculated that a KES 2 billion investment in our National Legal Aid Services would produce benefits worth Kes 23 billion and save KES 4.3 billion and KES 2.5 billion across our prisons and police stations. Increased legal literacy and assistance funding would decongest police stations, courts, and prisons and promote early case resolution and alternative dispute resolution methods. While the ICJ-K study makes a clear business case in terms of costs and benefits, the increased investment would also reduce the mental and financial anguish of both the accused and accusers.

As the nation awaits new leadership and direction from the Interior Ministry, Amnesty International Kenya, the Paralegal Society of Kenya, and the Law Society of Kenya have joined hands to host nine legal empowerment clinics at Kaptembwa Chief’s Office in Nakuru, Soweto Grounds M’bungoni-Kadzandani in Mombasa, Kapteldet ICT centre in Eldoret, Nyando Social Justice Center in Kisumu, Awelo Chief’s Camp in Siaya, Garissa Police Station in Garissa, Kenya RedCross Kanduyi Grounds in Bungoma and Malindi on the Huduma Namba public holiday on Monday 10 October.

Led by Mary Airo (Papa Shirandula lead actor Mama Nyaguthii) and managed by fifty voluntary paralegals, human rights defenders and pro bono lawyers, they will reach 1,000 people before the national clinic along Aga Khan Walk, Nairobi County, on 12 October. This legal freedom outreach initiative kicks off activities organised to celebrate Amnesty International Kenya’s tenth anniversary.

Much has changed since 2012, but with 1 in 2 Kenyans still believing there is no equality under the law, access to justice for all will require deeper state and non-state partnerships. Only this will increase levels of legal empowerment among citizens and responsiveness across public institutions. This challenge, too, needs to be placed on the desks of the incoming Cabinet Secretary and Principal Secretaries.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]