Paralegals and the work they do

Why are paralegals important?

Paralegals play an integral role in the delivery of legal services and regulation of this is essential. They perform many functions that a lawyer does and assume much of the workload for a fraction of the cost.  This has resulted in the reduction of unnecessary pre-trial detention, speedy processing of cases, and a reduction of case backlogs. The witness statements, description of case facts and so on that generally end up on papers before a Court which a Judge then reads to help decide a case, are frequently done by paralegals.  Therefore, it is in the best interests of all sectors of the legal community to ensure that the greatest possible commitment to justice is being made on all fronts, by helping support and train those that do a heavy portion of the work in terms of case managements and documents.  They can often be the first point of contact for those wishing to engage with legal services and can be instrumental in explaining complicated legal matters to a party or person in easily understandable terms.  They may be responsible for interviewing witnesses or vulnerable persons and be responsible for explaining legal documents in an easily understood manner.  In particular paralegals can be instrumental in advising and educating communities of their human rights which is a fundamentally important undertaking on the African continent.  They can play leading and supportive roles in campaigns to improve living standards and community development.  Therefore, appropriate support, funding and training is essential to help them carry out their functions and in turn educate and provide support to communities where legal mechanisms and justice seems unobtainable to many.  Individuals who come into contact with appropriately trained and competent paralegals will also have their faith bolstered in the legal system and will encourage others to seek help for issues, thereby strengthening legal processes and community relations.  By helping people learn about their rights, it can help people gain confidence to try and sort out their own problems in the future.

Employing holistic methods rather than strict formal court procedures can have a range of advantages:

  1. Less stress on leaving a community to travel to a Court in a different city/province;
  2. No costly litigation expenses which may not simply be available to many;
  3. In many cases they assist illiterate persons and resolution of an issue can be as easier as drafting a simple letter for a person;
  4. Local paralegals and advisers may be able to help better with translation issues than large city firms;
  5. They may be less daunting for people to approach than attorneys and lawyers, yet still impartial during a dispute;
  6. Paralegals are better adapted to follow up on situations than the court system to ensure recommendations or outcomes are effectively put into practice;
  7. Paralegals can use the media to promulgate information and have more freedom to give opinions and publicize important issues than those working for a large firm or involved within the court structure;
  8. Employing mediation so that families/communities can continue to live closely together rather than years of divisive court proceedings which could exile families/individuals from communities/jobs/marriage proposals;
  9. Ensuring education for future problems and that all aspects are understood rather than complex legal judgments with formal language;
  10. Many communities have informal courts and procedures, paralegals can help immensely in these settings by improving, educating and supporting these;
  11. Providing long-term solutions rather than strict and sometimes temporary court orders (e.g interdicting evictions);
  12. They can be a quick alternative in disaster situations such as emergency housing/homelessness, emergency healthcare, social security grants while legal proceedings, even urgent proceedings, will take time to progress through.


Further links and resources:

Reflection on the paralegal concept in Nigeria and the way forward.

Gwenaelle Dereymaeker; Formalising the Role of Paralegals in Africa: A Review of Legislative and Policy Developments.

The Paralegal Manual 2015.