The Legal Resources Foundation (LRF)’s Legal Services Programme, apart from strengthening the capacity of the marginalised to use legal information to assert their rights, also aims at increasing the number of people who have access to the justice delivery system.
In a space of three months, the LRF, under the programme, assisted 3 110 vulnerable adults to access justice countrywide while at the same time giving legal assistance to 99 children charged with various offences. The LRF, cognisant of the fact that the state does not offer legal aid to children who come in conflict with the law, ensures, under this programme, that such children are not subjected to the rigours of the criminal justice system without legal representation.
LRF also rendered psycho-social support to the 99 children. In the case of children who were charged with criminal offences it was noted that 60 of the children were in dire socio-economic circumstances that had compelled them to engage in criminal activities. Forty one of the children assisted were school dropouts. Through the psycho-social support rendered by the LRF, three children were enrolled back into school.
The 3 110 figure of vulnerable adults quoted above marked a 12% increase in the number of people assisted as compared to the previous three months. The increase is partly attributable to the strategy of venturing into areas where the organisation has not previously conduced activities. The positive feedback from those assisted is testimony of their gratitude to the LRF for rendering assistance to them at no cost. In the process of gratuitously offering legal assistance and advice, 2 708 cases were resolved under the auspices of this charity work in the same period.
Unedited testimonies below symbolise sentiments of gratitude from the beneficiaries.
A woman who was assisted by the LRF to write a will noted (in writing):
“I always thought that writing a will was an expensive procedure, but I am so grateful to the LRF for assisting me, now I know my estate will be properly administered according to my wishes when l die.”
Media Sabeta, who visited Nyanga Legal Advice Centre after attending an LRF outreach session, said:
“I would like to thank the organization for the assistance they are giving me in applying for a Protection Order. Previously I had been assisted to claim maintenance from my husband. I did not encounter any problems at court as I had been well advised on what to do”.
A client who was assisted in prosecuting a case at court to finality had this to say:
“When Julia, a distant relative of my late wife, stole the death certificate, title deeds and other documents she claimed to be my late wife’s sister. She connived with officials at the Master’s Office to register the estate using a false will. The housing authorities were corrupted as well. When I took the case to LRF Bulawayo I was totally helpless. The process took a while and I was impatient. I am pleased to say I won the case at the High Court. Julia returned all the documents. I have now registered the estate of my late wife. Had it not been for the lawyer who helped me I would not have managed to navigate the rugged terrain at the court. The procedure is complicated and arduous. I thank the LRF unreservedly. May the Lord help the organisation to keep assisting the needy and poor. Thank you.”
A policeman stopped an LRF vehicle along the Hwange-Bulawayo road and asked the driver to park by the roadside. LRF staff was apprehensive as to why they were stopped. Then he went over and said:
“I wish to thank LRF for the assistance I got when I was falsely charged of rape. The lawyer helped me through the full trial at regional court. And the court found me not guilty. I was innocent of the charges levelled against me. I was angry and devastated. Since my acquittal I have been able to move forward with my life. Last year when I turned 18 I trained as a policeman and qualified. Now I can look after myself. May the LRF continue to assist the poor and marginalised. If I had not been legally represented I would have been convicted wrongly. Thank you so much. That is the reason I asked you to park by the roadside. I recognized the lawyer who represented me. If I had been convicted I would be languishing in prison and my whole life doomed.”
The LRF has, over three months, carried out a total number of 444 outreach sessions and 119 workshops throughout the country under its Legal Education Programme, in pursuit of its objectives to increase legal and civic knowledge and awareness and to enhance confidence to seek legal advice / legal representation among vulnerable groups in the Zimbabwean community.
The workshops and outreaches were designed in a way that enabled the LRF to embrace both the urban and rural communities. While the outreach sessions targeted participants from the general community, the one-day community workshops specifically targeted community leaders, with the aim of them being able to cascade the knowledge gained to others in their communities. The LRF is also intensifying its drive to reach out to new geographical areas, and 102 workshops out of the 119 were conducted in new areas. Through these legal education workshops and outreach sessions, the LRF reached out to 19,533 beneficiaries. Close to one fifth of clients who later sought advice came after having attended a legal education session.
What stood out during the workshops and outreach sessions were the low levels of legal knowledge exhibited by participants. For instance, in Masivamela, Chiredzi, participants argued that it was not a criminal offence for a person to have sexual relations with and to marry a girl below the age of 16, particularly if she had consented. In Zvishavane participants stated that due to ignorance they had not reported rape cases where the perpetrator married the survivor, in the belief that the female could not raise a complaint of rape if she was in a relationship with someone.
The relevance of the LRF Legal Education Programme activities is underpinned when participants are disabused of such notions. In Mutoko for instance, one community was empowered enough to stand up against a headman who had subjected them to forced labour and exploitation since 2008, forcing them to work in his fields without any form of remuneration or compensation. Soon after the workshop one participant said:
“We are summoned to work in his fields each year and all 36 villages take turns to do forced labour for him. Thank you for coming to bring the light on the law. We will see to it that the practice stops. (sic)”
Apart from workshops and outreach programmes that included the distribution of relevant pamphlets, the Legal Education Programme also used the mass media to reach out to a wider community base. In collaboration with ZBC, the LRF participated in one radio and two television programmes. Lawyers from the LRF were interviewed on the legality of roadblocks by traffic police and on the topic of marriage and divorce in Zimbabwe. The programmes were broadcast on several occasions on ZTV and induced positive feedback from the Zimbabwean community. In Masvingo a radio programme with Wezhira Community Radio on Domestic Violence was recorded and distributed to commuter omnibus operators as a strategy to target passengers. The Legal Programmes Director also granted an interview to ZTV on sexual offences. The organisation is working hard to improve both the geographical reach and quality of its priceless Legal Education Programme.