Consumer Rights

THE BLIND MEN AND AN ELEPHANT: WHY GALA IS NEEDED

Before going into detail on GALA’s partners and the specific role GALA will play collaborating with partners around the world, I wanted to focus on the overall ‘why’ of GALA; why do we need an international organization focused on legal aid? How can GALA be effective when every country has its own laws, cultural norms and legal proceedings that are so country and region specific? I could blunder my way through the legal explanations and probably lose my audience in the first sentence or I can suggest a parable that provides an excellent example of the “why” and the “how” behind GALA.

There is an allegory that appears to come from India and is recounted by Buddhists, Hindus, Sufi Muslims and many disciplines. The story begins with six blind men (sometimes four or five, depending on the person sharing the story) who, having never seen an elephant before, are invited to the Shah’s palace to stand in one’s presence and touch the animal to learn more about it. Each blind man had their own opinion prior to visiting as they had heard stories about an elephant being powerful enough to scare away adults and children alike, strong enough to haul kilos of material for miles and yet gentle enough that the Shah’s daughter would ride one. Most of them skeptical, they were eager to have the chance to feel one for themselves.

Arriving, each one felt a different part of the elephant; “It is like a rope,” scoffed the man who touched the tail. “It resembles a pillar,” believed the blind man who touched the leg. “I’d say it’s a snake,” believed the man who touched the trunk. “This animal is similar to an oversized hand fan,” believed the one who touched the ear. “It’s like a sharp spear, believed the man who felt the tusk. “It is exactly like a big wall,” thought the one who touched the belly. Resting afterwards, the men began discussing the experience and discovered that all of them disagreed with what an elephant was. Becoming boisterous, the Shah heard them and came out to hear what the problem was. Immediately the Shah realized what had happened and announced: “you all are correct and yet you are incorrect at the same time. All of you have a partial understanding of the elephant and must come together to understand what is the structure of a true elephant.”

Attacking one element of injustice gives a limited and oftentimes inaccurate perspective of the big picture!

Attacking one element of injustice gives a limited and sometimes inaccurate perspective of the big picture!

How does this relate to GALA? Social injustice occurs in many forms and in many places yet all of these injustices contribute to the cycle of poverty and oppression. It is only by addressing all of these issues that real change can occur and the rights of the poor can become what the name implies yet struggles to fulfill: a right. GALA works with expert lawyers who have the perspective that comes from years of training in Universities and practice in their field. GALA also works with local law practitioners who may be willing to step out of their areas of expertise to help those who need representation the most. Most importantly, GALA intervenes on behalf of the poor and marginalized when the government or regulator fails to protect the poor due to corruption or lack of capacity.

GALA’s commitment to act as a defender of the public’s right to have clean air, water and a planet free from harmful toxins; to eat safe, nourishing food that is appropriately labeled; to have access to electricity and to medicines that heal is what makes it necessary. Without an organization like GALA, those fighting for social justice can’t “see the whole elephant,” and address the plethora of legal issues in developing countries where an injustice has been committed and as a result, a poor individual or community has suffered.

GALA is looking to partner with individuals, lawfirms and organizations who feel that same call to justice and want to join the movement that not only encourages discussion and communication, but demands action and accountability by those who are privileged with power. If you fill any of these categories, we are looking forward to having you on the journey!

 

JUSTICE FOR CONSUMERS VS. UGANDAN COMMERCIAL BANKS

A Public Interest Action: Case No. 02/2012.

1. Client Identification, location and relevant case background.

The clients reside in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

In 2011 following the presidential elections, Uganda experienced one of the highest levels of inflation in the country’s history, at an estimated 31%. As a measure to contain inflation, the Central Bank tried to use monetary instruments to control it and the imediate option available to the Central Bank was to increase interest rates.

Upon the Central Bank’s rate, the Comercial Banks followed suit and increased interest rates.

While this action by comercial banks was legitimate for new loans, at the time, the Comercial Banks retroactively increased the interest rates on existing loans as well. This action meant that those whose income at the time of borrowing was sufficient to service their loans could no longer afford to do so post rate increase (further, consumer purchasing power was decreased by a third during this time as well for staple foods etc.).  As a consequence, many persons have lost their businesses.   This has also affected those with  salary loans as well (aka consumer loans as opposed to productive, business loans).

Recently, the central bank reduced interest rates, but the comercial banks have refused to reduce their own rates despite calls from the Central Bank to do so.

2. Legal issue (s)presented:

This is a case involves financial institutions cheating their clients to increase corporate profits.  The comercial banks increased interest rates based on a contractual clause allowing them to modify interest rates.  But the issue is: is that right absolute; and what are the consumers’ rights when the banks are clearly taking unfair advantage?

3. Why the clients require legal aid:

Many of the clients at issue who have suffered this injustice were persons in the lower earning levels of society.  Even those who are not totally financially destitute still cannot file cases for fear of legal costs in the event they lose the case. A public interest legal action is therefore the ideal solution.  A successful action would also establish a precedent whereby banks would (hopefully) refrain from similar bad conduct in the future.

4. Counsel’s advocacy strategy:

Our strategy is to file a public interest action so that court can consider the issue.

5. Assistance requested from local Counsel from lawyers in other Jurisdictions:

i)              Fees for filling the case (Ugandan shillings = $ USD)

ii)             Legal costs for counsel including transport and honorarium

6. Counsel’s certification

This is a public interest case and there is no need for a certification, but Justice for Consumers has interviewed to a number of clients of microfinance institutions who are in favor of proceeding with the action.

 

JUSTICE FOR CONSUMERS

Case No. 01/2012

1. Client Identification, location and relevant case background.

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The client, Ms. Gaudensia T. 35 lives in Kampala, the Capital City of Uganda.

Three years have now passed since Gaudensia lost her life savings of Shs 25m to a microfinance institution ironically named Caring for Orphans, Widows and Elderly (COWE), which was in effect a Ponzi scheme.

To date, Gaudensia has requested assistance from 69 different government agencies, seeking justice and compensation for her savings that was stolen when COWE imploded and executives fled with clients’ money, but no assistance was forthcoming from government. In fact, one office even declared Gaudensia insane and involuntarily committed her to a mental institution in Butabika, Uganda.

Background:

In November of 2006, Gaudensia withdrew her money from Centenary Bank and transferred it to COWE drawn by an attractive interest rate. She learned of COWE in the Kabale district in and began saving with it. Because COWE’s stated objectives were to assist the disadvantaged, she had hoped that COWE would help her and her dependants. COWE shut its doors in February 2007 and by then Gaudensia had invested all her savings in COWE (which was not licensed by the Central Bank to accept the public’s savings).

COWE operated in such a way that one was required to buy coupons worth Shs65, 000 and pay Shs1, 000 for bank charges. Clients would then receive interest on coupons and the more coupons one bought, the more the interest earned.

At the time of COWE’s closure, Gaudensia had purchased 379 coupons. When COWE closed, an announcement was made informing clients to go to COWE’s premises and withdraw their savings. When Gaudensia reached COWE, however, the staff would not effect any withdrawals, and in had effect fled the premises.

When Gaudensia walked around, she met another individual she knew who worked with COWE. She asked what was going on and the ex employee informed Gaudensia that the brancoordinator had told employees to vacate the building so that clients would not question them. She gave Gaudensia the coordinator’s number and disappeared. When Gaudensia talked to the coordinator on phone, she told the coordinator that her sister was sick and she needed money to get her medication. The coordinator however responded that Gaudensia’s problems were not of her concern.

From the time the coordinator disappeared, Gaudensia has been forced to abandon her Bachelor of Commerce studies at Makerere University, her dependants have had to sell land in order to survive, and she depends entirely on relatives for survival.
Gaudensia went to many other offices like police, Impact Radio, Churches, Bank of Uganda (BOU) among others. Most of the people she talked to were familiar with COWE, but none were willing to take a stand against it. Several persons claimed there were ‘big people’ involved in the ownership of COWE and said it would be hard for her to get justice.
The governor at BOU wrote a letter advising Gaudensia to take the matter to Criminal Investigations Directorate, thus Gaudensia went to the Central Police Station (CPS). At CPS, she was not asked to write a statement like she expected. She talked to the Liaison Officer and as she was waiting, another policeman took her to a room where Gaudensia encountered a woman filling out a form. Gaudensia would later discover that this form was for her own commitment to an institution for the mentally disturbed. Gaudensia was then put in the back of a police car and taken to Butabika, a hospital for the mentally ill.
At the hospital, she was admitted and given a uniform. Gaudensia continued to insist to hospital administrators that she was not crazy , she kept on telling the administrators that but no one believed her. She was forced to take an unidentified medication that was provided to all patients. Gaudensia said “It was a very difficult time; I used to hide the tablets under my tongue and spit them when no one was watching. But one day the personnel stayed around and I was forced to swallow the tablets. The moment I did, my tongue was paralyzed. I kept on dodging the medicine like that until after one and half months when I was allowed to leave.”

2. Legal issue (s)presented:

This is a case involving false imprisonment whereby Gaudensia was confined to a mental hospital against her will and without being a danger to herself or others.

It appears that the owners of COWE are linked to the political establishment, but the veil can be lifted by a court of law and the responsible parties can be forced to pay damages to Gaudensia.

3. Why the client requires legal aid:

Gaudensis has no source of income. As she indicated, she lives on the assistance from relatives. Her case requires legal fees, as well as evidence from the mental institution in order to institute legal proceedings againest the Atorney General and also COWE. This also involves hiring a private investigator to access the necessary documentary evidence. Gaudensia has already tried to access documents without success.

4. Counsel’s advocacy strategy:

Our strategy is to get documentary evidence through a private investigator and then proceed to file a case in court. The limitation period is about to set in.

5. Assistance requested from local Counsel from lawyers in other Jurisdictions:

A) Funding for the following;

i) Fees for the private investigator
ii) Legal costs for counsel including transport and honorarium
iii) Court filling fees

6. Counsel’s certification

Guadensia is comfortable with her information being shared. It has actually already been published in the local media, but GALA prefers to use only the first names of clients in an attempt to shield them from unnecessary intrusions on their privacy.

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