Next to criminal law, there is no body of law more important to a developing country than contract law. Those are the words of Robert Summers, the McRoberts Professor of Research in the Administration of Law at Cornell, and he should know. Summers co-authored (with James J. White, University of Michigan) the four volumes of "The Uniform Commercial Code" (UCC), the most-cited treatise on the code by courts and scholars in the United States, and he served as an adviser on draft revisions to the Russian Civil Code and the Egyptian Civil Code.
Now Summers is almost a year into serving as principal co-drafter of Rwanda's code of contract law, which deals with sales and other commercial transactions. The entire project, as intricate and complex a piece of legal work as there could be, is being done entirely pro bono.
Rwanda currently lacks a comprehensive set of civil laws and wants "to start with a clean slate," said Summers. The country is abandoning prior structures of civil law that, because of Rwanda's past history as a Belgian colony, were heavily influenced by French jurisprudence. Some of the country's laws date back to the 1800s.
A key meeting on the work took place at the Cornell Law School Nov. 27-28. The meeting was attended by Summers; Swithin J. Munyantwali, executive director of the African Center for Legal Excellence in Uganda and Rwanda; Muna Ndulo, Cornell professor of law and director of the Cornell Institute for African Development; Cornell Law Professor Winnie Taylor; and Don Wallace Jr., professor at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., and chairman of the International Law Institute, who is co-drafting the code of law with Summers.
The five attendees discussed a 15-point agenda on how best to proceed with the project now that the first "sweep-through" of the Rwandan laws has been completed.
The Rwandan government is seeking to transition to more of a common law model, like those used in the United States and most of East Africa. A common law code -- especially one specifically adapted to Rwanda's needs -- will help the country increase trade and rebuild its economy, said project adviser Ndulo. "You can't have economic development without legal development to support it."
Rwanda is desperately struggling to recover from a genocidal war in the early 1990s that left an estimated 800,000 of its people dead, most of them members of the minority Tutsi tribe. Communications between the law school and the Rwandan justices has been scant, owing simply to the collapse of that country's basic infrastructure. A long distance phone call is often difficult enough to conduct.
But occasionally, Summers said, he receives a gracious letter from the Rwandan representatives expressing their deep gratitude for the work that Cornell, along with Wallace, is doing for them.
Summers says that his work on the Egyptian and Russian codes of law, too, were incredibly complex, but communications with representatives from those countries were far more extensive and regular.
Which is one major reason why the November meeting was so vital to the project.
"The main thing is to have the participants from Africa tell us their view of their country's needs," said Summers. "That way, we should be able to improve this code significantly."
For instance, it may turn out that some current contract law in Rwanda may be better adapted to that country's functions than an American-style code of law. It is important to understand that contract law applies to everything from canned goods to marriages. All of Rwanda's judges and lawyers will have to be re-educated to the new laws, and complex questions on how to handle ongoing negotiations under pre-existing codes of law pose daunting legal challenges that must be puzzled out.
When it is worked out, and Summers is confident it will be, Rwanda's contract laws could serve a model for the entire South African region and beyond, he said.
"There are other African countries hovering in the background watching this," Summers said. "They are apparently eager to consider it for their own jurisdictions. This embryonic project could have a substantial impact beyond Rwanda."
The group will meet again in the coming months. In the meantime, there is much more pro bono work to be done.