UPDATE: Uganda’s Legal System and Legal Sector

By Brenda Mahoro

Update by Lydia Matte

Lydia Matte is a Ugandan lawyer and a Chief Executive Officer at LandwellAdvocates. She holds a Master of Laws degree (International commercial law) from the University of Birmingham (U.K).

Published March/April 2020

(Previously updated by Lydia Matte in March 2013 and October 2016)

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1. Introduction

Uganda is a landlocked country located in East Africa with an estimated population of 44,309,694. The country has been a republic since October 9, 1962 when the country attained independence from British colonial rule. Uganda had been a protectorate of the United Kingdom from 1894 to 1962. Since 1962, Uganda has had 6 presidents and suffered political instability and turmoil. Currently, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is the President of Uganda. He came into power in 1986 after an armed struggle against the regime of the late Gen. Tito Okello. In 1996, presidential elections were held, and Museveni was elected as president. He won the subsequent elections held in 2001, 2006, 2011 and the recent elections held in 2016.

2. Structure of the Government

The 1995 Constitution established Uganda as a republic with an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. The three branches operate as follows:

The roles and powers of each of the Government arms are enshrined and spelled out in the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.[4]

3. Applicable Law

Given that Uganda was a British colony, the English legal system and law are predominant in Uganda; its legal system is based on English Common Law and customary law. However, customary law is in effect only when it does not conflict with statutory law.[5] The laws applicable in Uganda are statutory law, common law, doctrines of equity and customary law.

The Constitution is the supreme law in Uganda and any law or custom that is in conflict with it is null and void to the extent of the inconsistency.[6] Uganda has adopted 3 constitutions since her independence. The first was the 1962 constitution, which was replaced by the 1967 Constitution. In 1995, a new Constitution was adopted and promulgated on October 8, 1995. The Constitution provides for an executive president to be elected every 5 years. Parliament and the judiciary have significant amounts of independence and wield significant power. Formerly, the Constitution limited the president to two terms. However, in August 2005, the Constitution was revised to allow an incumbent to hold office for more than two terms. The Constitution since its promulgation has been amended three times with the latest being the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 2005, Act No. 21 that became effective on 30th December 2005.

The other written law comprises of statutes, Acts of Parliament and Statutory Instruments. These are published in the National Gazette.

4. Legal Sector

The legal sector in Uganda comprises of various institutions concerned with the provision of legal services, the administration of Justice and the enforcement of legal instruments or orders. The main institutions as established by the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda include the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, the Judiciary, the Parliament, the Uganda Police Force, the Uganda Law Reform Commission, the Uganda Human Rights Commission. Furthermore, there are the legal education institutions such as faculty of law – Makerere University, the Law Development Center, professional bodies such as the Uganda Law Society, the Judicial Service Commission, and other organizations involved in legal sensitization, and advocacy.

The general structure of Uganda’s legal sector is as follows:

The following institutions and departments are key players in the implementation of legal provisions and administration of Justice.

4.1. The Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs

The mandate of the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs reads that its goal is “to provide legal advice and legal services as well as supporting the machinery that provides the legal framework for good governance. ”[14]

Some of the roles of the ministry include initiating and facilitating the revision and reform of Ugandan laws, providing an effective mechanism for their change, advising the government on all legal matters; drafting all proposed laws and legal documents; instituting or defending civil suits in which the Government and/or its allied institutions are party and ensuring that court decisions are satisfied; overseeing the training of lawyers; promoting legal advice of the constitution, and disseminating legal information to the public.

These are carried out through various directorates and departments of the ministry such as the Directorate of Civil Litigation, the Directorate of Public Prosecution, Office of the First Parliamentary Counsel, the Administrator General’s office, and the Office of Legal Advisory Services.

4.2. The Judiciary

The Judiciary is an independent legal organ[15] comprised of courts of judicature as provided for by the Constitution.[16] The Judiciary is entrusted to administer justice in both civil and criminal matters through courts of judicature including the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and other courts or tribunals established by Parliament.

The highest court in Uganda is the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal is next in the hierarchy and it handles appeals from the High Court, but it also sits as the Constitutional Court in determining matters that require Constitutional interpretation. The High Court of Uganda has unlimited original jurisdiction.[17]

Subordinate Courts include Magistrates Courts, and Local Council Courts, Qadhis' courts for marriage, divorce, inheritance of property and guardianship, and tribunals such as those established under the Land Act (Cap 227), Communications Act (Cap 106) and Electricity Act (Cap 145), and Tax Appeals Tribunal Act.

4.3. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest Court in Uganda and is the final court of appeal. The Supreme Court only decides cases on appeal from lower courts save for presidential election petitions, where the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, which means that any aggrieved candidate in a presidential election has to petition the Supreme Court directly. The decisions of the Supreme Court form precedents, which all lower courts are required to follow.[18]

The Supreme Court bench is duly constituted if it consists of an uneven number being not less than 5 members of the court.[19] However, when sitting as a constitutional court, the Supreme Court shall consist of a full bench of seven justices has to be present.[20] The president can for that purpose appoint an acting Justice in the event that any of the justices are unable to attend.[21] The decisions of the Supreme Court form precedents that all lower courts are required to follow.

4.4. Court of Appeal/Constitutional Court

The Court Appeal was established by the 1995 Constitution.[22]It is an intermediary between the Supreme Court and the High Court and has appellate jurisdiction over the High Court. It is not a Court of first instance and has no original jurisdiction, except when it sits as a Constitutional Court to hear constitutional cases.

The Court of Appeal consists of the Deputy Chief Justice and such number of Justices of Appeal not being less than seven as Parliament may by law prescribe. The Court of Appeal shall be duly constituted if it consists of an uneven number not being less than three members of the Court.[23]

Cases coming before the Court of Appeal may be decided by a single Justice. Any person dissatisfied with the decision of a single Justice of Appeal is, however, entitled to have the matter determined by a bench of three Justices of Appeal, which may confirm, vary or reverse the decision. Cases decided by the Court of Appeal can be appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court of Appeal is the final court in election petitions filed after Parliamentary elections or elections provided for by the Local Government Act.

The Constitutional Court is established by the Constitution[24] to interpret any question of the Constitution. When deciding cases as a Constitutional Court it sits with a bench of five judges. This Court may if there is need for redress grant an order for redress or refer the matter to the High Court to investigate and determine the appropriate redress.

4.5. High Court

The High Court of Uganda is the third court of record in the hierarchy and has unlimited original jurisdiction, which means that it can try any matter as conferred on it by the Constitution and other law.[25] Appeals from all Magistrates Courts go to the High Court.

The High Court consists of the Principal Judge and twenty-five judges or such higher number as prescribed by Parliament by resolution.[26] The High Court as of May 2016 had 48 Honorable Justices and another seven on special duty.[27] The High Court is headed by the Principal Judge who is responsible for the administration of the court and has supervisory powers over Magistrate's courts.

The High Court has eight divisions: Civil Division, Commercial Division, Family Division, Land Division, Criminal Division, Anti-Corruption Division, International Crimes Division and Execution and Bailiff’s Division.

The High Court’s services have been decentralized (The High Court is situated in Kampala) for the trial of civil and criminal causes and for the disposal of other legal business pending at such time and place. The Chief Justice may, by statutory instrument, declare any area to be a High Court circuit.[28] The High Court has circuits in Arua, Jinja, Kabale, Fortportal, Gulu, Masaka, Mbale, Mbarara, Masindi, Lira, Nakawa and Soroti.

Other courts include the Chief Magistrates Court, Industrial Court, Magistrates Grade I and II, Family and Children Courts and Local Council Courts levels 3-1 (sub county, parish, and village).

The Magistrate Courts handle the bulk of civil and criminal cases in Uganda. There are three levels of Magistrates courts: Chief Magistrates, Magistrates Grade I and Magistrates Grade II. [29]

These are subordinate courts whose decisions are subject to review by the High Court. Presently the country is divided into over 82 Magisterial areas administered by Chief Magistrates who have general powers of supervision over all magisterial courts within the area of their jurisdiction. A chief magistrate has jurisdiction where the value of the subject matter is less than fifty million Uganda Shillings.

Grade I Magistrates are situated at district headquarters and handle matters whose maximum penalty is not death or life imprisonment and whose subject matter does not exceed Twenty Million Uganda Shillings.

A Grade II Magistrate handles matters whose offences are specified in the first Schedule of the Magistrates Court Act for example riots, smuggling and bigamy and whose subject matter does not exceed Five Hundred Thousand Uganda Shillings.

A magistrate’s court is deemed duly constituted when presided over by any one magistrate lawfully empowered to adjudicate in the court.[30]

Tribunals are specialized courts that form part of the judicial structure e.g. Industrial Court, Tax Appeals Tribunal, NPART Tribunal, Land Tribunals, Tax Appeal Tribunal and the Human Rights Tribunal. A parallel judicial system exists for the military with a hierarchy of courts established under the NRA Act and Regulations. The only link from the military system to the mainstream judicial system arises from an appeal from the Court Martial Appeal Court (the highest appeal court in the military system) to the Supreme Court where a death sentence or life imprisonment has been meted out.

Every village, parish, town, division and sub- county level has a Local Council Court.[31] Some of the matters triable by the Local Council Courts include trespassing, debts, contracts, assault, or assault and battery, disputes in respect of land held under customary tenure, disputes concerning marriage, marital status, separation, divorce or the parentage of children and disputes relating to the identity of a customary heir.

The judges are appointed by the President on recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission and with the approval of Parliament.[32]

More information about the Courts of Judicature of Uganda can be obtained at the official website.

4.6. Sources of Legislation

All Acts of Parliament, statutes, legal amendments and practice directions are first published in the Uganda Gazette, which is published every week. Other information published in the Gazette includes rules, draft bills, proclamations and legal notices. The Uganda Gazette is published and printed by the Uganda Government Printers. Ugandan legislation is available in print in the set of Uganda Laws Volume. The Uganda Law Reform Commission published a Revised Edition of the Laws of Uganda, containing 350 revised Acts from 1964 to 2016, with the subsidiary legislation. You may find the statutes, laws and important cases at Uganda’s Online Law Library and also on the Uganda legal information institute (ULII).

4.7. Sources of Case Law

Law reporting in Uganda has been very weak and thus very few law reports have been published in Uganda since 1958. The Law Development Center in Uganda is mandated to prepare and publish law reports and other legal material but so far have published only High Court Bulletins. As a result, there has been a void in the availability of published judgments as lawyers and other stakeholders are forced to depend on photocopies of judgments, which they request from the Courts.

Ugandan judgments are reported in the following law report series:

4.8. Law Libraries

The following are some of the useful law libraries in Uganda:

4.9. Online Legal Resources

4.10. Present Structure of Legal Education in Uganda

To pursue a legal career in Uganda, one must first obtain a Bachelor’s degree in law, followed by a Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Centre, which is in essence the bar course .After passing the bar, one has to apply to be enrolled as an advocate of the bar and can appear in all Courts of Judicature in Uganda.

Since 1968, Makerere University has been the only Government University in Uganda where a degree in law could be obtained. Currently other private universities such as Uganda Christian university Mukono, Kampala International University, Nkozi University, Nkumba University, kampala International University, Islamic University in Uganda, Uganda Pentecostal University and Busoga University.

The requirements for joining the faculty of law and the Law Development Center are below.

Entry into Faculty/School of Law: To be admitted to the Law program a candidate must score at least two (2) Principal Passes at the Advanced Level Examination conducted by the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) leading to the award of a Uganda Advanced Certificate of Examination.

The entry scores for students applying for private sponsorship and the evening program are not as high as students applying to the government sponsorship day program. Admission to the Law Program is open to Uganda Advanced Level Certificate holders,[34] holders of a diploma in law from the Law Development Centre with or without working experience and other diploma holders with at least a Second Class Diploma, graduates of other disciplines, and Mature Age entrants following an examination conducted by the Institute of Adult and Continuing Education of the University.

Pre-entry exams have been adopted by many of these law schools/faculties, such as in Makerere University and Uganda Christian University, Mukono. One of the aims of these tests is to improve the quality of students admitted to/joining the legal profession. The LL.B. lasts 4 academic sessions or 8 semesters and should in any case be completed within 6 academic sessions or 12 semesters. Completion of the LLB program takes a minimum of 4 years.

The following are some of the major subjects that are studied in the LLB program

Entry into the Law Development Centre: By regulations made under the Advocates Act,[35] to qualify for admission to the Bar, one must pursue the Diploma in Legal Practice at the Law Development Centre (a perquisite for practicing law in Uganda). The Law Development Centre is the only institution in Uganda that offers the bar course leading to the award of a Diploma in Legal Practice. A candidate must hold the LL.B. Degree from a school/faculty of law that has been accredited by the Law Council or be admitted as barrister or solicitor in the United Kingdom and must have passed the pre-entry examination. (This examination was introduced in the year 2010 and is conducted by the Law Council). However, there is current deliberation as to the removal of the pre-entry examinations.

One of the functions of the Law Council is to exercise general supervision and control over professional education in Uganda and to provide for the conduct of qualifying examinations.[36]

Most of the law graduates, following completion of the Diploma in Legal Practice, are either absorbed in the public service as State Attorneys, Magistrates, or find outlet in the private sector working with private Law firms, Companies or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and others have taken into the corporate world.

4.11. The Legal Profession

Legal professionals may be in private practice or public practice. Private practitioners are advocates employed in private law firms and they represent individuals in litigation and other legal matters. Information about private law firms may be got from the Uganda Law Society. Advocates in public service are employed by the Government and serve as state attorneys in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

All practicing lawyers can subscribe to the Uganda Law Society, which is the main legal professional organization in Uganda. At the regional level, one can join the East African Law Society. The main functions of the law society include maintenance and improvement of the standards of conduct and learning of the legal profession, and to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge by the legal profession. More information about the Uganda Law Society can be obtained at the official website.

Other professional bodies which lawyers can subscribe to include the Uganda Women’s Lawyers Association, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, and Uganda Christian Lawyers Association.

4.12. Main Legal Reference Books and Legislation

The list below contains some of the main legal reference material in Uganda.


Legal Reference Books

All the above-mentioned legislation and reference books, and many others can be easily obtained at the Law Development Center Publishing House and Book Centre, Uganda Bookshop, Mukono Bookshop and Aristoc Bookshop.

[1] Article 98 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

[2] Ibid., Article 108 (3) (a).

[3] ibid., Chapter 8.

[4] Chapters 6, 7 and 8.

[5] Ibid., Article 2(2) , Section 15(1) Judicature Act, Cap 13.

[6] Ibid., Article 2.

[7] Ibid., Chapter 8.

[8] Ibid., Article 146.

[9] Ibid., Article 248.

[10] Ibid., Article 60.

[11] Ibid., Article 238.

[12] Ibid., Article 51.

[13] Section 2, Advocates Act Cap 267.

[14] MoJCA – Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs (last visited February 23, 2020).

[15] Article 128 (1), The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

[16] Ibid., Article 129 (1).

[17] Ibid., Article 129.

[18] Part II, Judicature Act, Cap 13.

[19] Article 131 (1), The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

[20] Ibid., Article 131(2).

[21] Ibid., Article 131 (2).

[22] Article 134 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

[23] Ibid., Article 135.

[24] Ibid., Article 137.

[25] Ibid., Article 138.

[26] Section 13, Judicature Act.

[27] The Judiciary- The Republic of Uganda – The Honorable Judges of The High Court (last visited February 23, 2020).

[28] Section 19, Judicature Act.

[29] Section 4: The Magistrates Court Act, Cap 16.

[30] Section 5, Magistrates Court Act.

[31] Section 3, Local Council Courts Act 2006

[32] Article 142, The 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

[33] International Business Publication, Uganda Business Law Handbook: Strategic Information and Laws 30 (2013).

[34] Completion of Senior six.

[35] Section 8, Advocates Act.

[36] Ibid., Section 3.