A new movement of paralegals in Africa in administering community justice
24 November 2016 by Neemah Ahamed
Community paralegals use their basic knowledge of law to resolve disputes and incidences of injustice at a grass root level. Many claimants in underprivileged areas are not aware of their most basic human rights. Paralegals in these communities play a significant role in raising awareness of these rights and in facilitating their enforcement. They take a collaborative approach and empower aggrieved parties by involving them in the resolution of their disputes. According to the Economist (22nd October 2016), only 1 in 100 disputes reach a lawyer. Within this context community paralegals play an important role in the administration of justice.
Paralegals use their skills to facilitate the resolution of disputes. These range from land grabbing, women’s property rights, HIV-related issues, prisoners’ rights and citizenship issues. For instance in Uganda, the Uganda Land Alliance works with paralegals to document cases, communities’ needs, understand their clients and identify successful approaches to handling cases. In Tanzania, village elders and area chief leaders work with paralegals to solve matrimonial, inheritance and land disputes and issues related to gender based violence in order to reduce the number of cases going to the local courts. They expedite the mediation of disputes, address power imbalances that may exist in matrimonial disputes and in some instances are able to apply customary law in a less discriminatory manner to resolve grievances. They have played a role in war stricken areas to resolve conflicts between squatters and landowners. In South Africa paralegals have played an important role in justice since the 1950’s particularly in interpreting law of the apartheid regime. They now advise on issues related to gender-based violence, employment law and rights of persons dealing with HIV.
Namati is an organisation that has recognised the role that paralegals play in community justice. Its CEO Vivek Maru, cofounded TIMAP for Justice, a paralegal programme initiative that was set up when Sierra Leonne recovered from its civil war. Paralegals pushed for justice out of a system that was fragmented and played an important role in persuading the water authority to repair wells so that communities could have access to clean water. Namati provides training to community advisers, health advocates and environmental coordinators in basic law, mediation and advocacy so that they can protect community lands, secure citizen rights, advocate for health rights and inheritance rights for widows.
According to Namati, community paralegals often work in isolation, on a small scale and do not record their achievements. They work as volunteers or are poorly paid; they are not subsidised by legal aid as this is used to assist people charged with capital offences. Funding is provided by foreign donors and this is usually short term. For instance, in Sierra Leonne paralegal intervention decreased when donor priorities changed.
Sierra Leonne has addressed this problem and has enacted legislation in which paralegals are recognised as part of their legal system. Kenya, Uganda and Zambia are in the process of adopting Legal Aid legislation which will define paralegals as legal aid providers that can assist in both criminal and civil matters. Legal aid services will be available to indigent people. It is hoped that the passing of this legislation will ensure that paralegals get the training and funding they need to carry out their work in ensuring rights are protected, upheld and justice is done.
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