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Zambia: Access to justice for children in conflict with the law

In Zambia, as in many countries, criminal justice systems often fall short of aspirational norms. Since 2018, DLA Piper Africa has been working with pro bono client Undikumbukire Project Zambia (UP Zambia) and the Zambian judiciary to improve child justice systems and advocate for children in conflict with the law.

In October 2018, a team of 17 DLA Piper Africa lawyers representing 9 offices, as well as DLA Piper colleagues from the US, Hungary and Australia, joined UP Zambia staff to conduct a week-long child justice drive in Copperbelt Province, Zambia. The team interviewed and documented the cases of 115 children held in six prisons in Copperbelt. We found that children’s cases were often inordinately delayed due to lost files or clogged court dockets and that children were often held for extended periods in adult facilities. The team took action to support those children surveyed whose cases required intervention, searching neighbourhoods for parents, organizing transportation, locating missing files, representing children in court, and advocating with judges and administrators.

34 children were transported to juvenile facilities immediately after the October 2018 visit. Since then, DLA Piper Africa and UP Zambia have made return trips to Copperbelt and continued to advocate for hard cases. The team has secured the release of 15 children whose cases were stuck due to administrative failures,  appealed one case, and filed constitutional bail applications in six others. The team is continuing to work for the release of 5 more children who have been in extended detention due to lost documentation.

The team prepared a report of findings in the Copperbelt and presented it to the Chief Justice of Zambia, who appointed a High Court judge to oversee the administration of children's cases in criminal proceedings with the aim of addressing systemic failures. Under the Judge’s leadership, the judiciary has started to implement a suite of reforms to fast track children's cases and strengthen the Judiciary’s training program on child justice. DLA Piper Africa and UP Zambia will continue to work with the Judiciary in 2020 to respond to their requests for support to improvements in child justice.

Our collaboration has also helped UP Zambia expand its reach. Prior to the intervention, UP Zambia was limited by lack of resources and personnel to operating in the Lusaka area and did not have a presence in Copperbelt, the country’s second most populous province. Thanks to DLA Piper Africa’s support UP Zambia has successfully built relationships with key child justice stakeholders in Copperbelt, including judges, prison officials, and social welfare officials. The organization is now taking steps to leverage this local knowledge to establish an office in Copperbelt.