'Palliative care organisations need to provoke lawyers to work with them because lawyers will not come to them. They should have a database of lawyers whom they can call up for help.'
This was one of the sentiments shared by a legal practitioner in Uganda during discussions between legal practitioners and palliative care service providers on identifying means to provide legal support for patients, families and service providers.
Accessing legal practitioners is not as easy as taking a walk in the park. In most cases, a caregiver or patient goes through a lot of frustration as they try to locate legal companies, let alone get an audience with a legal practitioner. Identifying a legal company may not be enough, as one needs to also establish whether the particular legal company deals with the kind of cases relevant to the patient's particular situation, and also if they can afford to pay for the services being offered. Given this frustration, a majority of patients and their caregivers fail to make an attempt to contact a legal practitioner.
One patient shared this frustration by narrating how he had been thrown out of his house due to rent arrears: 'You can't take them [landlords] to the courts of law. You can't even afford to take them to the human rights bodies because you are so poor so you can't pay for the services.'
To address similar sentiments prevalent among African patients, the successful practice of palliative medicine requires basic knowledge of its medico-legal aspects . This calls for health professionals to understand the legal framework through which they operate from and also for legal practitioners to understand the meaning of palliative care.
Involving African legal practitioners in palliative care
APCA's journey toward the involvement of legal practitioners in the provision of palliative care in Africa began in 2009 when APCA was involved in reviewing national legal documents, laws, regulations and policies in three African countries: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, to identify gaps and opportunities for strengthening palliative care services. With continued support from the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, APCA has been responding to some of the recommendations that the review established. To begin with, focus has been placed upon Uganda's involvement of legal practitioners, with a view of rolling out the lessons learnt to other African countries.
So far, a total of eight legal organisations have continued to show their commitment to the cause of palliative care. Very soon, we will be witnessing the creation of legal aid clinics in palliative care sites in Uganda. This will go a long way in not only enhancing the understanding of medico-legal aspects in palliative care, but also in addressing legal and human rights issues facing patients, families and service providers throughout the continent.