BY DAVID WANJALA

Legal pro-bono work in Kenya is as old as the profession itself. Many leading lawyers have extended free services to deserving Kenyans whose financial and social limitations would otherwise mean they do not access justice. It is only in the recent past that this noble undertaking has not only been recognized, but also appreciated.

 

Amnesty International Kenya (AIK) in partnership with the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) sponsored The Pro-bono Lawyer of the Year Award 2013, the first ever in Kenya’s legal history, on December 10, to recognize and appreciate pro-bono contribution of lawyers in the field of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR).

AIK’s facilitation of the award was informed by the organization’s five-year campaign focused on human rights violations that intensify poverty in the context of people living in the slums and informal settlements, says Charles Nyukuri, growth and human rights education coordinator.

In the last year’s inaugural event, four advocates including Ms Carol Mburugu, Messrs Elisha Ongoya, John Chigiti and Tony Mulekyo were awarded for their landmark contributions towards achievement of ESCR in a colorful ceremony hosted at the LSK’s Secretariat, Nairobi.

A nomination committee involving various stakeholders comprising AIK, LSK, Kenya Media Network, Family Health Kenya and the East Africa Centre for Human Rights identified the four through an intensive process.

Ms Mburugu was nominated for promotion of the right to housing particularly in the case of Satrose Ayuma vs. Kenya Railway Staff Benefit Retirement Scheme and Two Others. The court went ahead to find the evictions, carried out in 2012, as unconstitutional.

“She has also filed cases on other economic and social rights such as the right to health,” Mr Gilbert Onyango, director East Africa Centre for Human Rights said while presenting the award. Mr Ongoya was nominated on account of his work with regard to the right to housing. Over the years, the nominating committee said, he has filed several cases challenging the violation of the right to housing “and has also been instrumental in pushing the boundary with regard to litigating landmark cases in the country.”
John Chigiti and Tony Mulekyo were jointly nominated for their role in the Muthurwa evictions in Nairobi. They fought the demolition and/or eviction of the residents of Muthurwa. They were also instrumental in the development of the eviction guidelines, the nominating committee said.

To be awarded, one must have prolifically taken up ESCR related cases of individuals or communities living in slums resulting in judicial pronunciations or jurisprudence. The same should also have resulted in; slum-based individuals or communities taking control over ESCR decisions that affect their lives, their voices to be heard and their rights to be respected; the public relating to the situation in slums and informal settlements including poverty, insecurity and exclusion and; creation of awareness on how slum dwellers demand dignity and justice.

The process of nomination is strict. The nominating committee posts a call for nomination on the AIK and LSK’s websites and an advert in one of the mainstream dailies. Only qualified advocates of the High Court of Kenya, heads of civil society organisations working in the ESCR sector, eminent academics in the field of ESCR and heads of international organisations qualify to nominate.

Submissions must comprise a completed nomination form and must also be accompanied with; not more than three page detailed description of the nature of the nominee’s activities that contribute to the realization of ESCR and/or positive change in society, clearly highlighting the role of the nominee in delivering justice to slum-based communities or individuals through his or her pro-bono intervention; a summary not exceeding 150 words of the nominee’s achievements in terms of their relevance to the award; names and contact information of at least two referees and; additional supporting documents such as court rulings, testimonials, articles, curriculum vitae and material relevant to the nomination.

The completed nomination documents are then emailed to the LSK-AIK Pro-Bono Award Scheme Secretariat where a jury of five esteemed practitioners in the field of ESCR evaluates submitted nominations to choose the prizewinner.

Amnesty International is the world’s most influential human rights organization. The organization received the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its life-saving work. With a vision for everyone to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards, the organization is independent and impartial in its research.

The Kenya chapter of the Amnesty International, AIK, has, since 2009, mainly focused on addressing Human Rights Violations that Drive and Deepen Poverty especially within the context of adequate housing rights of people living in the slums and informal settlements. AIK sees the engagement to celebrate the sacrifices that lawyers undertaking pro-bono work go through in advancing the course of justice as a conduit for raising human rights awareness and therefore empowering the people.

Pro-bono, according to a free online encyclopedia, is a Latin phrase for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service and common in legal profession. Unlike traditional volunteerism, pro-bono involves specific skill of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

According to Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG), a leading law firm in Canada that has a formal pro-bono policy, lawyers who engage in pro bono work make meaningful contributions to the lives of others – preserving and advancing the welfare of communities and their disadvantaged members. At the same time, BLG writes on its website, “such lawyers gain practical and professional development experience, have an opportunity to pursue areas of passion and interest, and invariably are enriched by their pro bono experiences.”

This year’s awards will take place in December. Amnesty International Kenya, Law Society of Kenya and the other organizers are already working on making the event even more successful by bringing on board more stakeholders and improving on the nomination process to ensure only the deserving get awarded.

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