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Gerald Abila: Barefoot Law

Gerald Abila: Barefoot Law

Gerald Abila, then a law student at Kampala International University, decided to leverage on the ubiquitous use of social media to help his countrymen understand their legal rights. Oluwabusayomi Sotunde talks to him about creating Barefoot Law – a tech-savvy non-profit legal service that provides support, information and guidance via mobile and social media platforms, at no cost to those it helps.

“As a student, here I was in class, studying the law. But it was as though I were in a bubble because the things I am being taught are alien to the public. So I created a Facebook page and used it to [translate] what I learnt in class into simple language for the public,” says Gerald who created the multi-award winning Barefoot Law in 2012.

Today, Gerald and a group of young lawyers – otherwise known as “Barefoot Lawyers” – handle about 2,500 requests and cases monthly.

Barefoot Law innovates around information and communication technology (ICT) to provide legal help in Uganda via social media.

They also provide in-person consultancy at their office at Bukoto, Kampala – the country’s capital – and engage in community outreach to help people who are living in rural communities understand the law and their fundamental human rights.

Five Barefoot Lawyers - men and women - at their drop in centre in Kampala

A group of lawyers at the Barefoot Law drop-in centre in Kampala

Dispensing justice

The impact has been wide.

“We have proven that it is possible to innovate around technology for the law, and some of our methods are now being adopted as best practices by many legal organisations in east Africa. Socially, we have taught people about the law in an interesting way, and this is seen through our interactions with them,” says Gerald who adds that the venture has received support from the Government and other stakeholders.

However, stories like that of Winnie – a 25-year-old widow and mother of three, whom Barefoot Lawyers helped to recover property from her in-laws, get full custody of her children, and go on to start a small business – are what’s close to Gerald’s heart.

He considers Winnie’s story a success “not only because the issue was successfully resolved, but also because it demonstrated the multiplier effect offering access to justice and the law can have on an individual, society and a country as a whole.”

Yet like any other social venture, Barefoot Law has had its challenges. According to Gerald, there was a point at the beginning when he was almost discouraged from continuing due to a funding drought.

“The idea that a social venture like ours was out to do good was great, but many people wondered how long we could do this, so many organisations were actively invested in seeing how long we could do this work. But eventually, we demonstrated that we were going the distance and we showed results.”

Innovating justice

The presence of legal aid in Uganda is minimal and restricted. Also, many Ugandans have limited access to justice and knowledge of the laws that govern them.

“Is it okay for one to be charged in two different courts?” Asks one of Barefoot Law’s 33,000 followers on Facebook. “I bought a house. Should the written agreement be for sale of house or sale of land with property on it?” asks another.

Sometimes, the questions are related to land, property and succession issues which are still major legal challenges in Uganda. Most times, people get immediate feedback on their request – not only from Barefoot Law but also from lawyers who are following the page.

To make justice more accessible, Barefoot Law fuses new and existing technologies with traditional systems of legal aid. Through its website, the social enterprise provides free downloadable legal documents in PDF format, including the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, a Guide to Employment, and a free will template and other important documents.

In rural areas where internet facilities are scarce, Barefoot Law works in partnership with the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), to empower women about their property rights via mobile technology as well as through traditional means such as seminars and clinics.

A large building full of people facing a whiteboard with writing, and chatting among themselves

Barefoot Law gives training to a community on women's property rights.

It also has a partnership with United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF’s)’s U-report program and dabbles in advocacy work, including in the Women Property Rights Initiative (WPRI), which promotes the recognition and protection of women property rights.

The tech-savvy justice-dispensing enterprise recently spearheaded another legal service  – mSME Garage ‒ which offers free legal, accounting and tax support for micro and small businesses.

Beyond legal matters

Gerald believes Barefoot Law can use information technology to achieve universal access to justice and law, in line with Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“The future of the global legal profession is in technology, and at no time has this prophecy been more fulfilled than now.”

In the meantime, the Barefoot Lawyers are working towards building a physical footprint across the country where they can interface with people in the field.

A man standing behind a stall advises 3 men on legal matters

Barefoot Law doing outreach work around Uganda

In the future, they intend to expand to other parts of the world, and to have a fully autonomous system, especially a cost-effective and scalable artificial intelligence system that will serve as a as a first point of contact for legal aid.

In his journey as a social entrepreneur, one golden lesson Gerald has learnt as a leader is “as a good leader, you have to empower your team to say ‘no’ to you”. He adds that to lead a social change enterprise such as Barefoot Law, you have to be ready to “fall down seven times and get up eight times”.

This article was written for Leading Change by Oluwabusayomi Sotunde.

“The future of the global legal profession is in technology, and at no time has this prophecy been more fulfilled than now.”

Gerald Abila, Founder of Barefoot Law