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Suella Fernandes: Supporting stronger legal systems is essential to promoting change and development in Africa

Suella Fernandes Suella Fernandes is a Barrister and was Conservative candidate in Leicester East in 2005. She has just co-founded and chairs the Africa Justice Foundation, a new charity working to strengthen legal systems and improve access to justice though education and training in Africa.

I first visited Rwanda in 2008 with Andrew Mitchell, now Secretary of State for International Development, as a team member of the Umubano Justice Project.

Our volunteer lawyers taught advocacy, legal drafting, negotiation and substantive law to judges, government lawyers, community justice lawyers and law students over two weeks. We made new friends with the lawyers working hard to resolve land disputes in remote rural villages; with lawyers still seeking redress in genocide-related crimes; with lawyers from the Ministry of Justice working to draft new legislation on trade and commerce. We were warmly welcomed by law professors at the National University who are striving to improve the quality of education for their students.

Then, in 2010, I volunteered in Sierra Leone with the Umubano Project and met similarly-motivated lawyers in the capital, Freetown and in villages such as Makeni and Bo.

Returning to the UK, I was inspired by the role that these courageous and resourceful lawyers were playing in reconstructing their country in the aftermath of a devastating genocide. And I was more aware than ever of the wealth of information, institutional support and quality of training we receive here in the UK.

I also saw for the first time how essential a functioning legal system is to development. Without properly drafted laws, change simply cannot happen. Without rigorous ethical standards in the judiciary and police, there is no legitimacy. Without fair systems and access to legal expertise, foreign investors will be deterred. The rule of law is a basic ingredient that enables prosperity to flourish. Not as obvious as access to clean water or vaccinations but essential nonetheless.

Protecting the £7.8bn aid budget has been criticised by some but as David Cameron said at the party's recent Spring Forum in Cardiff, everyone in this party can be proud of the millions of lives that are being saved in some of the poorest countries as a result. 

The Africa Justice Foundation builds on what was started during those two weeks in 2008 and brings together other UK lawyers and business to support stronger legal systems in Africa. We are providing education and training to African lawyers at all levels: governmental, nation-wide and on the ground within local communities.

This year, we arranged for seven Rwandan Government lawyers to study at UK Universities on specialist Masters courses, partly supported by UK law firms. They are studying Legislative Drafting and Business law and will return at the end of the academic year with invaluable skills to improve their work of creating new legislation to develop better systems in Rwanda. We are intending to expand this Scholarship scheme to Sierra Leone and Nigeria this year.

We have also developed partnerships between law schools and UK law firms through which support, teaching materials and training has been exchanged successfully. We are also developing infrastructure projects such as an online case reporting facility so that lawyers and judges might have better access to judicial decisions, keep up to date with legal developments and improve the quality of service they provide.

We are developing a partnership between the Open University and the National University of Rwanda to build distance-learning courses; and we have a team of volunteer lawyers and teachers providing hands-on training to community justice programmes. Our work is designed to respond to direct requests for specific assistance from our partners in Africa so that it meets their needs. We aim to sustain the projects through partnership and on-going collaboration, supported by law firms and business.

There is so much to do and this is a small step in the right direction. In the spirit of partnership, we hope to provide thoughtful, appropriate and sustainable assistance in direct response to our partners in Africa.

Below is the video produced for the launch of the Africa Justice Foundation


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