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Justice, Stability and Prosperity: Building Fair Legal Systems for Africa

Cherie Blair, The Huffington Post, 5 January 2011

Co-authored by Philip Riches and Suella Fernandes.

Access to decent security and justice services, such as the police and courts, is as an important development goal as clean water, healthcare and education. Indeed, robust legal systems, independent and transparent judiciaries and clear, comprehensible laws are crucial for creating the conditions in which wider development efforts can take root and flourish.

The rule of law is the cornerstone of a properly functioning society, essential for stability and prosperity. Above all, it provides the framework for the building of trust -- between individuals in a society, between individuals and the state, and between those inside and those outside a country. This trust is simply indispensable to give a society confidence in the future, to look forward and to invest in itself (whether financially or in terms of social capital) and to encourage others to invest as well.

Where this trust has broken down, as it has in those countries recovering from conflict, the problems are many and serious. A lack of belief in the state's ability to protect its citizens leads to communities using illicit weapons to protect themselves with the likely impact on the fragile peace. The lack of accountable justice services can allow corruption and brutality to flourish with the most vulnerable, such as women and marginalized victims.

There is also, of course, a direct economic impact. Wealth creation needs basic legal mechanisms such as well-defined private property rights and comprehensive contract and corporate laws. Developed economies need rules governing investment, a system of secured lending that makes it easy for creditors to take a broad range of assets as collateral and a workable tax regime. Bringing these about requires law-making institutions to have effective resources, competency and transparency.

The challenge of improving the effectiveness of legal systems is widely recognized across Africa and there has been real progress in many countries on the continent. Spreading the good practice already entrenched, accelerating the improvements in others and supporting those which still face major problems is key to enabling Africa to make the most of its immense natural resources and the incredible potential of its people.

Africa Justice Foundation is a new charity set up by UK lawyers, including the three of us, which aims to help support this goal. Working in partnership with African lawyers, AJF is helping pool the efforts, know-how and resources of UK business, law firms and educational establishments to assist in a targeted, effective and sustained manner.

AJF is already helping eight Rwandan students to attend courses in the UK in Business Law and Legislative Drafting at Liverpool University, Liverpool John Moores, the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, Queen Mary University and Surrey University. Three of the students have been sponsored by city law firms Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and SNR Denton. As part of their year-long program, each will spend time at the law firm to get valuable insights into the practicalities of commercial law in the city.

But we also recognize that the ambitions of Africa's lawyers and the hopes of the continent's citizens require support to be offered on the ground. So along with the Government Lawyer Study Scheme, AJF has facilitated a partnership between the Open University and the National University of Rwanda to offer open-source distance learning to students in Rwanda. In addition, teams of UK lawyers have volunteered their time and skills to teach students and lawyers in Legal Aid clinics in Sierra Leone. Other projects involve supporting a group of lawyers in Sierra Leone who represent detained female inmates convicted after having been denied a fair trial. AJF is also helping Rwandan lawyers adapt the on-line case reporting system already established in a number of southern African countries.

Bringing lawyers, business, educators and government together to share ideas and resources in this way can help build on and spread achievements. But we also recognize, in this area as in many others, the complaint from partners in Africa has often been of well-intentioned but uncoordinated support from the development community. AJF knows that there are no simple solutions. We are acutely aware of the need for close links with government and other partners in Africa so that the programs we support are both designed through collaboration and respond to the individual and express needs of the continent's lawyers and their societies. What is also not in doubt is that their goal of building effective, fair and trusted legal systems is key to unlocking Africa's enormous potential for the good of the continent and the rest of the world.

To find out more about the Africa Justice Foundation click here

To view the article on The Huffington Post click here