What is a paralegal

What is a paralegal and what do they do?

The National Paralegal Institute identifies a Paralegal as a person who is qualified by education, training or work experience to perform legal, social welfare or related work, which requires a basic knowledge of the law.  There is, however, no strict or formalized definition of a paralegal in South Africa.  A trait shared among paralegals is the quasi-legal, humanist approach to helping a diversity of people with a range of issues from everyday practicalities to more challenging obstacles.   Two things a paralegal cannot do is represent clients in court, and they may not give specialized legal advice or practice law in any way that is reserved for qualified lawyers in that jurisdiction.

Dereymaeker recognises the different terms used to describe paralegals in the African context:

“In most African jurisdictions, “paralegals”, also called “community-based paralegals” or “community paralegals”, are usually understood to be individuals who do not have a law degree but have skills and knowledge of the law that allow them to provide some form of legal aid and assistance to those in need, in particular members of a community they are part of or know well, and typically under the supervision of a legal practitioner.  A term ‘community based paralegals’ often refers to paralegals who provide a broad-range generalist basic legal aid services to communities with which they are based. There are also specialized paralegals, such as criminal justice or health paralegals working with specialised civil society organizations or relevant government institutions on the matter.”

According to a World Bank Justice and Development Working Paper;

Paralegals provide a crucial link to justice services and legal redress in South Africa, particularly for the rural poor.  Although post-Apartheid constitutional reforms guaranteed a broad range of rights and benefits to all South Africans, including the right to legal assistance, accessing many of these benefits remains a challenge for those who live in remote areas and those who cannot afford legal representation.  Community-based paralegals fill this gap by providing dispute resolution and legal support that is both geographically and financially accessible and informed by a deep understanding of the social issues and everyday challenges facing their clients. Despite the prevalence and importance of paralegals in the South African justice sector, their role remains largely underformalized and understudied.

Paralegals work in different sectors of society. These include:  

Community advice centres – they offer a basic free legal advice service to people who cannot afford an attorney, they provide community education on the law and rights and referral services.

Trade unions – Organisers, training officers and shop stewards need paralegal skills for their work. They also need to know the basic principles of labour law and labour relations.

Service organisations and NGOs – Field employees working in service organisations, NGOs, CBOs and attorneys’ organisations need paralegal skills, for example, giving advice, monitoring abuses of rights, understanding and simplifying the law, and assisting with community education.

Law firms – Paralegal employees in law firms take statements, refer people to other organisations if necessary, give advice, etc.

Inside the legal system – Lay assessors are paralegals who participate in the criminal courts by helping magistrates reach fair decisions in criminal cases. Lay assessors should have a basic knowledge of the law and court procedures.

Community Development Workers (CDWs) – CDWs are based in municipal offices. Their role is to provide a link between government and communities. They need to have certain skills including those for effective conflict resolution and they need a sound working knowledge of broad issues. such as social development and welfare, disaster management, the responsibilities of local councils to communities and how to make local government accountable.