How do you become a paralegal?
There is no necessary qualification a paralegal needs to have, but generally knowledge of law and legal based initiatives are required. This may entail working for a legal organisation in administrative work and rising through the ranks or gaining a diploma to lead projects or community based initiatives, but this is not essential. Alternatively, paralegals may be individuals with a law degree who choose not to practice or have gained their degree in another jurisdiction which is not recognised in their current system. Paralegals may simply be members of the community who, through education and training, advise others of their rights and support and empower those people to use the legal system and other avenues available to them.
The South African School of Paralegal Studies offers a Paralegal Diploma course which takes five months to complete and includes practical experience gained in the Magistrates Courts, Dees Office and a law firm. The school also helps their learners to find employment once they have successfully completed the course.
Some statements from African paralegals:
In Nigeria, one of the CIRDDOC paralegals Mrs. Agbom Beatrice testified as follows in one of the evaluation meetings:
“Before I became a paralegal, I was a civic educator. I was promoted to be a paralegal because of my hard work in the CIC. I have been equipped and I know my rights and the law. Here are the pictures (showed pictures) of the August meeting in which I was called to be a resource person to teach women their rights”
Another paralegal, Lillian Nnachi shares how the paralegal training and experience changed her life:
“I was trained in 2005 because I was doing well as a Civic Educator. I have been recognised by our
Traditional Ruler and many cases are referred to me in the community. ..in my church my pastor
recognises me. I was once called to give a lecture on gender in the church. After my lecture, the church committee that was made up of all men was disbanded and the committee became gender balanced with 3 men and 3 women. We organise awareness programmes on gender sensitivity for LG chairmen. Two women have been appointed supervisory councillors in my Local Government… We have handled many cases…”
On her own part, Mrs. Nkiru Nwobodo stated that:
“Since I became a paralegal, I have gained boldness. I single-handedly initiated and facilitated a Bill on the anti-stigma law against people living with HIV/AIDS to the State Assembly and it has become law in Enugu state. I could not have done that without the capacity building I received as a paralegal”
The Nigerian Paralegal Manual identifies the following issues regarding paralegalism –
- Impersonation – A paralegals must always remember that he/she is not a lawyer and as such cannot practice law. Impersonation is a criminal offence.
- Confidentiality – A paralegal should be able to keep secrets and not divulge information about his/her clients. Never discuss client issues with a third party unless you are reporting to a referral agency from which you need assistance.
- Politeness – Always treat clients with respect and courtesy.
- Promptness – Always provide prompt services. Do not keep people waiting unnecessarily.
- Impartiality – A paralegal must always be unbiased and impartial. Do not handle cases in which you have an interest so as not to run the risk of taking sides. Always refer such cases to another paralegal or legal aid clinic.
- Fairness and Justice – Always be fair in your decisions. Do not let your culture, emotions or religion weigh heavily in the decisions you make or advice that you give, make sure you are just and fair. (p14)