The legal profession has grown leaps and bounds in Uganda. Over the years, the legal profession has elicited mixed reception with some holding the profession in much derision and many others having great respect and admiration from many. Part of the perception is fomented by the way lawyers carry on both their work and themselves. To some extent, the bug of showoffs and keeping appearances through dressing code, gadgets, and cars among others haunt the legal profession. Though the presentation may somewhat be necessary, the requirement to keep a decent office/chamber is not just a luxurious stance.
A chamber according to Black’s Law Dictionary is among others a room or compartment; or the hall or room where a legislative or judicial body conducts business. Black’s Law Dictionary further defines a judge’s chamber as ‘the private room or office of a judge’ or a ‘place where a judge transacts official business when not holding a session of the court.’
Gleaning from these definitions, especially with reference to a Judge, chambers must be private rooms or spaces for transacting official business. However, though not specifically in reference to Advocates or Lawyers, the same definition is very applicable to chambers of advocates or lawyers. This is important given much of what Lawyers engage with is private information from their clients. A private space wherein they can extract, process, and even store the information for immediate or future use becomes necessary.
The Advocates (Inspection and Approval of Chambers) Regulations, 2005 hereinafter abridged (AIACR), sets out basic requirements for the establishment of a law chamber by law practitioners. Regulation 2 defines chambers to mean premises used by a practicing advocate as approved by the Law Council.
The basic minimum requirements for the approval of chambers for law practice are set out in regulation 5. These include -a suitable desk for an advocate, a separate room for each advocate and another desk for a clerk, secretary and cashier; a secretarial desk and computer or typewriter; a reception with chairs or benches for clients; a bookshelf; a chest of drawers or a filing cabinet; a reasonable collection of reference law books including a full set of the revised Laws of Uganda 2000; access to a toilet and sanitary facilities; and books of accounts.
There should also be headed paper of every law firm, which shall bear the names, and qualifications of each partner, advocate, and legal assistant in the firm. The law firm with generic names shall only be approved if consent is sought from the law Council prior to the registration of that name. Trading is not permitted to be carried on in any chambers. Under Regulation 5(6), the Law Council may refuse to approve any chambers that do not meet any of the requirements set out in the Regulations and may order the closure of those chambers until the chambers meet the required standards set out in these regulations.
In light of technological developments including Uganda launching the 5G technologies, the majority of the requirements such as reference books, sets of the Laws of Uganda, personnel, and accounting systems can largely interact online. An online platform created by way of an application or website or other digital interfaces where communication, documents, or other private information or data is sourced or stored electronically eliminates the need for the physical space.
Uganda enacted the Electronic Transactions Act, 2011, hereinafter abridged (ETA), with a number of objectives. Key among them was to facilitate electronic communication and transactions; remove and eliminate the legal and operational barriers to electronic transactions; promote technology neutrality; provide legal certainty and public confidence in electronic transactions and promote e-government services among others. The bigger purpose then was to enhance service delivery by both government and the private sector and promote the economic development of the country.
In the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, which has ravaged economies, reshaped modes of socialization, and working among others, the mental barriers to an exhaustive use of the electronic services have been profoundly demystified. So many businesses, organizations, and even individuals have successfully continued holding meetings, conferences, worship services, work-related engagements, and socializing in the virtual space via technologies like Zoom, Chat rooms, streaming on social media platforms among others. With the likely effect of the pandemic affecting our lives indelibly, the question as to the viability and realization of e-law firms and e-lawyering in Uganda comes alive.
The electronic Transactions Act envisaged electronic service provision by both public and private entities. Section 2 thereof defines “service provider” to mean— (i) any public or private entity that provides to the users of its service the ability to communicate by means of a computer system, and (ii) any other entity that processes or stores computer data on behalf of such communication service or users of such service. Law firms squarely fall within this definition and thus can transact electronically.
Can E-Law Firms be approved?
Situations such as Covid 19 have proved that having an office, as set out in the AIACR, may not necessarily be relevant in order to offer legal services. People can actually create different working spaces anywhere else and effectively work in them. Being a legal service, it can effectively be delivered online or electronically as long as the service provider and the consumer of the service have so agreed. Throughout the period where the country has been in lockdown, several lawyers have continued to offer legal services from the comfort of their homes and such other spaces deemed appropriate to them. It is clear thus the nature of protection consumers require does not rely on the location or opulence of the office but rather the professionalism, accessibility, and level of accountability of the service provider, in this case, the Advocate.
The ETA sets the parameters for consumer protection that supersede the necessity for a physical location such the full name and legal status of a person; telephone number of the person; website or email address of the person; membership of a self-regulatory or accreditation body to which the person belongs or subscribes and the contact details of that body. These requirements make a service provider accessible electronically and accountable professionally regarding the nature of the services they offer. These requirements fall right within the fiat of Uganda Law Society as a member entity and the Law Council as a regulatory entity in not only promoting the welfare of members and disciplining errant lawyers respectively but also ensuring the protection of consumers of legal services broadly.
Much as both AIACR and ETA agree on the relevance of premises wherein services may be offered, the purposes of the premises seem varied. The requirement for premises and the basics of what must be in such an office in terms of space, furnishing, personnel, and resources for research to warrant approval envisages concepts of accessibility to clients, convenience and comfort, efficiency, teamwork, storage space, research space, privacy and of course some essence of the traditional flamboyance the profession seeks to exude. Within a setting limited by the legal framework requiring documents to be served on an Advocate by being delivered physically, signed, and stamped, registered offices were most appropriate.
The requirement for having a physical address under the ETA is in specific reference to consumer protection. Throughout the Act, the requirement for physical address appears only two times: -first in reference to the person offering the goods or services and the other regarding a place where documents may be served. These requirements fall under the headnote of consumer protection. Examined more closely, physical addresses are a component of consumer protection. First, the consumer of the services can physically find the service provider and know where to serve documents; and second, should anything go amiss in the conduct or provision of the service, the consumer can effectively trace the service provider for redress. This provision comes from the challenge of rampant electronic fraud that has bedeviled electronic transactions in general thus making it difficult to trace wrongdoers. The other argument stems from the challenge of tax collection government would face where the taxpayer cannot be found should they default.
From the onset, the ETA, in fact, does not eliminate the need for brick and mortar to ensure consumer protection from fraudulent service providers. It promotes the brick and mortar in equal footing with electronic service provision. At the altar of consumer protection, the ETA thus sacrifices effective actualization of one of its objects: i.e. to equalize as it were things done electronically with those done manually or physically. To that end, the emphatic stress on the need for a physical office for lawyers would be unfortunate and a legal bar to the full realization of the principle of equalization.
Where a service provider is a member of or subscribes to a professional body and is heavily regulated, as lawyers are, the only purpose a physical location plays would invariably be service of documents. Section 17 of the ETA provides that data is deemed to have been dispatched by the originator or received by the addressee at their respective places of business. However, under section 17(2)(b), where a person originating the data message or the addressee doesn’t have a place of business, the place where they ordinarily reside is presumed to be the place of business. This provision of the ETA thus gives legal effect to offices being in residences.
It, therefore, begs the question: -can the Law Council approve a place other than an office envisaged in the AIACR for the practice of law? In the era of ever-increasing digital and electronic interactions, is a physical location or office of any consequential relevance? If a lawyer had an arrangement with a third party willing and able to offer services of receiving physical documents on their behalf, would that serve the purpose? The answers to these questions should be honestly debated and offered now and guaranteed by practical steps into the amendment of the AIACR and the Advocates Act respectively.
Implications for E-Law Firms
It is high time lawyers tested the technological advancements against the law by seeking approval of virtual law firms. Such firms must provide effective protection of data and privacy of consumers; be interactive and link with other e-government services. The upsurge in this phenomenon might have a downside on brick and mortar businesses that offer rental space for an office.
The Law Council will have to break free from traditional rigidity and become bendable. Will the rule of law prevail progressively or not?
The Law Council and the Uganda Law Society should take advantage of the existing technologies to boost their capacity to monitor and regulate their members of the legal fraternity online. The more regulators create frameworks for e-law firms, the easier the enforcement of professional standards and ethics will become.
What is critical in protecting consumers of legal services is the strict enforcement of conditions for membership and observance of ethical and professional codes of conduct by legal service providers. These must appear on the e-platforms chosen by the e-law firms. These make the full enjoyment of the electronic transactions regime a reality for legal practitioners who may want to set up e-law firms and cut off unnecessary costs of doing business.
It is imperative also when conducting business from the comfort of home or any other space, that, lawyers keep some decorum and create a working space that projects seriousness and confidence that the privacy of the person and information/data will be protected.
There is no need for an annual inspection of chambers for E-law firms. Inspections can be a costly process for both the Law Council and some of the membership of the Uganda Law Society in terms of time and financial resources. In fact, there have been years when inspection of chambers has delayed because the Law Council lacks funding to handle the exercise.
Many firms that have existed for some time largely stay in their locations for long and would not ordinarily move except if they want to increase size, avoid costly rentals, and take advantage of other better amenities. Once the Law Council has inspected chambers and approved both electronic or physically, such premises need not go through the religious rudiment of annual inspection for re-approval. The AIACR may need to be amended to require the advocates to file annual returns, providing details of the requirements of approval of chambers and certifying that none of the conditions for revocation has occurred in the year of filing the returns. Where such conditions for revocation of the certificate of approval of chambers occur, the advocate(s) should immediately inform the Law Council in writing and the Law Council may then revoke a certificate subject to the conditions in regulation 7 of the AIACR.
 Regulation 5(1)(a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f), (g), (h), and (i) of the Advocates (Inspection and Approval of Chambers) Regulations, 2005
 Regulation 5(2), (3), (4) and (5), ibid
 S.4(a), (b), (c), (d) and (e) of the Electronic Transactions Act, 2011