Paralegals in the African Context


Paralegals in the African Context


Newly emerging constitutions in the African continent guarantee a range of freedoms and rights on paper but legal procedures across the countries are still complicated, time consuming and expensive.  Paradoxically, many African countries still operate corrupt and oppressive governmental and legal systems despite their magnificent paper constitutions.  It is still difficult for poor, vulnerable and marginalized people to have access to justice, despite those being most in need.  The growth in paralegals and community workers contribute in a dramatic way to the education and provision of access to justice, transforming the justice system in the process.

Paralegals are particularly important in countries suffering conflict or hindered political and legal systems as often the legal profession and judges cannot act as impartially and freely as they should, leaving a gap in justice which paralegals can help to fill.  Governmental departments are increasingly recognizing the importance of involving paralegals in new systems to enhance justice and legal procedures in a tangible way.  Regionally, the 2004 Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System in Africa, subsequently adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, provides that the delivery of effective legal aid must include paralegal services.

In 2015 The Education and Training Unit and The Black Sash (funded by CS Mott Foundation) produced a comprehensive seven-hundred-page manual complete with legal dictionary and resources adapted specifically for South African paralegals.  Several more countries have developed their own country-specific manuals for paralegals, highlighting the importance and necessity of documents like these, and emphasizing the need for support for such projects which are clearly of much need.

A recent article in the Economist titled Poor Law, The Rise of Paralegals gives the following examples;

“When the civil war ended in Sierra Leone, the country’s legal fraternity could have fitted in a couple of buses. In Malawi, murder trials were suspended in April this year because the legal-aid board couldn’t afford defence lawyers; it has just nine of its own, and four of those are studying abroad.   In Kenya, they help stateless Nubians acquire citizenship. In Mozambique they secure access to anti-retroviral drugs for people with HIV.  The Community Law and Rural Development Centre, which runs paralegal offices in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, recovered R4.3 million ($300,000) last year from unpaid state benefits and the like.  Most paralegals are funded by foreign donors; this can mean that programmes are cut back when fashions change. One South African advice centre finances itself through a recycling business. Barefoot Law, a Ugandan non-profit run by volunteer lawyers, uses phones and social media to reach people cheaply. In Sierra Leone, a new land policy requires investors to pay into a fund supporting local paralegals (who help resolve land disputes, among other things).

Lotta Teale of Open Society Foundations, a charity that promotes better governance, wants donors to set up endowments to pay for paralegals over the long term, though obviously this would be expensive.  Sierra Leone’s landmark legal-aid law, which promises paralegals in every chiefdom, was in part a response to the injustices which stoked a brutal civil war.  Take Boxton Kudziwe, a mobile-phone salesman in Malawi. He was charged in 2006 with murder and spent seven years in prison awaiting trial, only to be found not guilty. Today he works as a paralegal, using his experience to help others get bail. ‘Then I was ignorant,’ he says, recalling his arrest. ‘No longer.’”


Further links and resources


Economist article; Poor Law, The Rise of Paralegals.

The Paralegal Manual 2015.

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.

Open Society Foundations.