After another adventurous weekend with our Global Justice crew, I was tempted to write about our time in Sipi Falls where we abseiled down a huge waterfall, hiked through slippery mud and rain through the foothills of Mt. Elgon, and drank steaming cups of delicious coffee after roasting and crushing the coffee beans. We are an adventurous group, and have really been maximizing our weekends in Uganda. But dear reader, I don’t want to mislead you into believing that Global Justice in Uganda is all play and no work. I’ve been doing my fair share of both here. I’m also afraid that if I don’t write today about my experience in the courts, then next week’s Prison Project—a “life changing experience”—might eclipse my enthusiasm about this judicial internship.
Today began my sixth week of interning in the High Court of Uganda, Commercial Division. I’m in the Commercial Court with one other colleague, and the rest of our colleagues are placed in the High Court – Family Division, High Court – Criminal Division, Directorate of Public Prosecution, and Constitutional Court of Appeal. In addition to our weekend adventures around Uganda, we all hang out a lot in our apartment complex/hotel in downtown Kampala called Mosa Court. We all share stories about our internship experiences. Every court is pretty different—some courts are more organized than others, the types of cases and parties are different, some interns are getting more/less work, even the dress code varies a bit in each court.
I’m as happy as a clam working in the Commercial Court. Parties in the Commercial Court are generally international and local businesses, banks, government agencies, and private individuals. I have been gaining a lot of insight into the types of lawsuits that are filed here and the key players in the Ugandan business world. Sometimes, I get to sit in court and observe court process. Most of the time, I am working on drafting a judgment or ruling, scouring through a large case file on my desk. Today, I got a case file that was six inches high! Most of the cases involve either contract disputes or applications invoking the rules of civil procedure. I’ve had to constantly revisit the contract principles that I learned the fall of my first year in law school, in addition to familiarizing myself with the Civil Procedure Rules of Uganda. The contract principles are mostly the same but with different landmark cases, whereas the civil procedure rules are more difficult for me to grasp.
There were a couple things that came as a surprise to me. First, the differences in legal education here versus the U.S. mean that there is no equivalent to what we understand as a summer judicial intern. Here, a law degree is completed as one’s undergraduate education in four years. After that, students work either at a law firm or with a judge for one year while preparing for bar exams. As a result, there are summer interns here who observe court process as a learning experience, usually between their third and fourth year of university education. There are also clerks, who have finished their degrees and are attached to a judge for one year. They draft opinions and judgments during this year before bar exams. Both interns and clerks at the Commercial Court usually hail from Makarere University in Kampala (which is like the “Harvard” of Uganda). I often feel like my educational background puts me in a “limbo” between interns and clerks in terms of capacity.
Another thing that surprised me is that the Commercial Court runs a lot more efficiently than I expected. There appears to be a strong system for court procedure, and everything seems fairly well organized. The court is also using ADR and mediation to resolve disputes, and this is one area that particularly needs resources to continue developing. The recent implementation of ADR is helping businesses immensely since they can resolve their disputes faster and tie up less of their resources in lengthy lawsuits. The effect of ADR cannot be underestimated, since speedier dispute resolution helps the economy and even helps lower the interest rates given by banks. There are still things that might be improved, such as investing in new technology, employing court reporters, expanding the use of mediation and ADR, hiring paid mediators, etc. Overall, though, the Commercial Court is on an upward trajectory.
Professionally, this has been a great experience for me. My professional goals involve working for a non-profit organization or government agency where I can advocate for environmental justice and public-interest causes. Though I have not worked on any environmental cases this summer, I am getting insight into how civil disputes between businesses are argued and resolved. I think it is
also extremely valuable for me to see how a High Court Justice resolves disputes between parties and applies careful legal analysis and reasoning. She is extremely diligent in her work and devoted to seeking justice. It is also a great experience trying to navigate my way through the Ugandan common law system, since there are common denominators that cross over every legal system. Understanding these principles makes me a more adaptable legal thinker. I also appreciate that the Justice for whom I work is helpful in providing encouragement and feedback. Lastly, I have enjoyed adapting to a workplace in a different cultural context, and now I have the confidence that I can adapt to any work environment.
I have nothing but positive things to say about my experience interning in the Commercial Court in Kampala. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me thus far, and I’m sad that my time here is wrapping up in a few short weeks.