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Exploring the community level impact of paralegals in rural Sierra Leone

Exploring the community level impact of paralegals in rural Sierra Leone

Introduction: A previous article by the author explored the work and impact of community-based paralegals in the lives of ordinary people in rural areas, through the lens of a number of case studies depicting real life justice problems of individuals and how paralegals helped resolve them. That effort intended to provide an illustrative window into an aspect of the work of community-based paralegals to better explain how the model works and to address lingering suspicions of ‘old school folks’ who see little or no value in other, more realistic methods of justice service provision outside the more conventional ones.

To the credit of proponents, the usefulness of paralegals is increasingly being recognised in the justice sector in Sierra Leone; the proposed legal aid law provides a role for paralegals as primary justice service providers offering legal advice and assistance, the new Justice Sector Reform Strategy and Investment Plan II[1] recognises the role of paralegals in ‘providing free services appropriate to the needs of ordinary people’ as well as helping to ‘reduce remand populations in prisons’ and makes a case for the scaling up of paralegal services and recently a collaborative paralegal training was held at the newly established Judicial and Legal Training Institute.

These acknowledgements come in the wake of efforts by the Open Society Justice Initiative to scale up paralegal services in Sierra Leone through its legal empowerment of the poor project. Justice Initiative has since 2009 worked towards establishing a nation-wide network of paralegal service providers, based on the model developed by Timap for Justice. Currently, paralegals are available in 32 locations across 8 districts in Sierra Leone including the western area.[2] These paralegals deal with a variety of problems such as cattle trespass, breach of contract and child maintenance using an assortment of tools including mediation, legal advice and assistance or navigating institutions of government. These problems are classified as either individual or community-level. The latter, which is the remit of the present article, involves problems relating to or having significance for a group of similarly placed persons or sometimes an entire community. This article will explore how paralegals have helped resolve some of these community-level problems to further underscore their unique importance and the need for such innovative conflict resolution mechanisms in our convalescing justice system.

Access to water for personal and domestic use- Ponka Village, Lungi

On 20 May 2011, paralegals from the Rotifunk office were in Ponka Village, Lungi on a mobile clinic visit[3] when an old man brought a complaint to them on behalf of the village: in February 2010, a successful businessman who was raised in Ponka Village, the birth place of his mother, visited the village and was moved by the circumstance of the people to make a humanitarian donation. At a meeting with the elders of the community, they identified lack of access to safe water for personal and domestic use as the most pressing problem- women and children had to travel many times a day, over 2 km to fetch water. The young man therefore agreed to fund the construction of a borehole in the village. The elders then contracted a civil works expert from Masoila to carry out the construction at the total cost of Le 3,300,000 (about US $771). The full amount was paid in three instalments as agreed, but the contractor did not keep to the schedule of work he had provided. By April 2010 when the last instalment was paid, his workmen had only drilled the borehole to the water table and laid some culverts. He promised to complete construction of the borehole in May 2010, but neither he nor his workmen showed up in the village and despite the best efforts of the community elders, the benefactor and the section chief, work on the village’s cherished project was effectively stalled. Meanwhile the women and children continued to fetch water from distant locations. At the end of the mobile clinic session, the paralegals registered the complaint and obtained a statement from the old man. In the first week of June, the paralegals sent two letters in succession to the contractor first inviting and then renewing the invitation to a meeting but he neither responded nor turned up for the meeting. On 8 June, a paralegal visited the contractor’s house but he was unavailable- the paralegal then left a strong message for him with his spouse. The next day, the contractor went to the paralegal office to explain his side of the story after which the paralegal explained to him in simple terms the nature of his obligation to the community and the legal consequences of his failure to perform his own side of the bargain. The paralegal made it clear that unless he undertook to and completed the work within a strict timeline, the office would institute legal action against him on behalf of the community. He immediately promised to go to the village on 16 June to complete the work. On the said date the paralegal went to Ponka Village and met the contractor and his men hard at work. On 30 June 2011 construction of the borehole was completed and is now in use. According to the headman of Ponka Village, ‘had it not been for the paralegals, their borehole would not have been completed’. He felt glad that the paralegal office was in their chiefdom.

Chieftaincy impasse – Jong Chiefdom, Bonthe

During a baseline survey in August 2010 several members of a community in Jong chiefdom informed the paralegals that they did not have a local chief because the paramount chief (PC) had suspended the substantive one. Further inquiry by the paralegals revealed that it all started in January 2008 when the community protested against the town chief R.B. for abuse of authority, extortion and reckless conduct. As a result of this, the PC asked R.B. to step down and instructed the Speaker to conduct fresh elections. A.S. won the elections (which R.B. did not contest) and was chief until March 2009 when R.B. protested that he was still the recognised chief as it was his name and not A.S. that was on the government’s gazette. That same month, during a community meeting, the PC read out a letter which he claimed came from the provincial secretary (PS) suspending A.S. as chief because R.B. had submitted a petition against the election. The community felt that the PC and the PS were conspiring to impose R.B. on them and threatened to do a number of things if they were forced to accept R.B. including not paying taxes, embarking on a strike action or just abandoning the community. As a result, A.S remained suspended, R.B. was not reinstalled and the community was without a chief. This was the state of affairs when the paralegals went to the community in August 2010. In September 2010 the paralegals held discussions with the PC urging him to listen to the community people- he said he had heard them and would reinstate A.S. but he did not even after several follow-up visits. Meanwhile, youths in the community were becoming impatient and threatened violence if the suspension of A.S. was not revoked. This development obliged the paralegals to engage the office of national security who with the paralegals re-engaged the PC with no result. The matter was then referred to first the district security (DISEC) and then the provincial security (PROSEC) meetings for action. The latter invited all the parties concerned and at a meeting it was decided that a committee be set up to probe the issue further and make recommendations. The committee, which included one of the paralegals from the Mattru office, found that majority in the community did not want R.B. as chief and wanted A.S. reinstalled. It therefore recommended fresh elections to finally settle the matter. On 11 August 2011 the national electoral commission conducted fresh elections which were contested by R.B. and A.S and observed by senior government officials and civil society groups. A.S. emerged victorious with more than two-thirds of the votes cast. The paralegals were commended by the community for their role in resolving the impasse.

Cattle trespass and livelihood concerns- Marampa chiefdom, Port Loko       

At a mobile clinic session in October 2010, paralegals from the Marampa office received complaints from several farmers regarding cows which were allowed to roam unsupervised by their owners. The farmers reported that these cows often destroy their crops and that despite numerous complaints to the owners of these animals and the village authorities nothing was done to restrain them. The farmers felt that because they were poor and the cattle owners were wealthy, the local authorities always sided with the latter and refuse to treat their complaints seriously. They reported that it was difficult if not impossible to get cattle owners to pay compensation to farmers for damage to their crops or take meaningful steps to deal with the problem comprehensively. After the complaints were admitted the paralegals visited the affected farms to ascertain the extent of the damage. It was clear that the uncontrolled wanderings of these animals posed a serious threat to the livelihood of the poor farmers. The paralegals then met with the cattle owner whose animals had run amok in the community. Initially he was uncooperative, confidently boasting of his connections to ‘persons in government’ which in his mind made him virtually unassailable. The paralegals nonetheless explained to him the liability arising from the acts of his animals and his failure to exercise proper control over them and the ability and willingness of the paralegal office to seek redress for the poor farmers by legal means. The cattle owner suddenly became very cooperative and amenable to a non-judicial resolution, which led to a mediated settlement between him and the farmers. He agreed to, and for the first time, paid the sum of Le 1,140,000 (about US$ 281) as compensation to the farmers. In addition, he agreed to work with the community to erect stout fences around the grazing area of his cattle to prevent them straying into farmlands. The farmers were quite pleased with the outcome and the paralegals felt they could use the results of this case to help resolve similar complaints in nearby communities.

Relevance of community-based paralegals

Undoubtedly, community-based paralegals have helped resolve thousands of cases since they were first introduced in Sierra Leone as a practical method for providing basic justice services to rural communities in the early part of the previous decade. Through their mobile clinics they have empowered many communities to engage with authorities in finding solutions to social problems and to hold them accountable for their actions thus promoting good governance at the local level. The emphasis on mediation as a measure of first resort as opposed to litigation has helped maintain peaceful co-existence among disputing parties who often come from the same close-knit community. This is particularly useful for rural dwellers who rely on the social support mechanism that communities offer and which could so easily be undermined by persistent litigation. It should be noted however that the effectiveness of paralegals is in part due to their connection to lawyers and the threat of litigation or high level advocacy where frontline efforts appear unsuccessful.

Currently, paralegals are playing a key role in criminal justice by helping to relieve the immense pressure on the country’s tottering detention facilities caused by over-crowding and poor management. Timap’s criminal justice pilot, the Sierra Leone Bar Association’s legal aid scheme and the Pilot National Legal Aid employ paralegals at the frontline of efforts to bring legal aid services to detained persons.

The paralegal methodology will continue to remain relevant in Sierra Leone particularly in rural areas as it is a creative and flexible methodology capable of adapting to changing circumstances. With the almost frenzied influx of foreign companies, whose interests may not necessarily align with the locals, into rural areas to exploit land for various purposes and moves by central government to devolve more responsibilities to local authorities, the potential for newer types of conflicts is inescapable. It will be interesting to see how the paralegals cope with these new situations and whether they will be as effective where the power imbalance is more pronounced than in the cases discussed.

Conclusion

The paralegal model of delivering primary justice services has flourished tremendously in Sierra Leone with a lot of outside help. The Open Society Justice Initiative is now spinning off and supporting an entirely new international non-governmental organisation focussed on developing, implementing and coordinating legal empowerment innovations across several countries including Sierra Leone. This commitment to providing solutions to the basic justice problems of the poor in Sierra Leone needs to be matched from within by both government and civil society in order to guarantee any reasonable prospect of long term sustainability. Primary justice is an integral part of any justice system and in a country where 70% of the population do not access formal justice systems[4], ignoring it will be monumentally detrimental. So far, the government has shown promising signs that it is taking primary justice seriously- cabinet has approved a legal aid bill which formally recognises paralegals as primary justice service providers within the national legal aid scheme and the new Justice Sector Reform Strategy and Investment Plan II calls for scaling up of paralegal services nation-wide. Real commitment will however be judged by how quickly the bill is enacted, legal aid institutions set up and the amount and distribution of  state resources provided across all levels of legal aid service provision. For its part, the paralegal methodology has proven to be efficient, low-cost and effective at resolving basic justice problems and needs to be rolled out to roll back the huge access to justice deficit in the system.

By Sonkita Conteh Esq.

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[1] The Justice Sector Reform Strategy and Investment Plan II 2011-2014 is the government’s time bound blue print to improve access to justice in Sierra Leone.

[2] The scale up builds on the work of Timap for Justice a local non-governmental organisation which Justice Initiative helped set up in 2003. Before the scale up, Timap had paralegals in 13 locations across 3 districts. The other local partners are Access to Justice Law Centre, BRAC Sierra Leone, Justice and Peace Commission and Methodist Church Sierra Leone.

[3] A mobile clinic is a periodic outreach by paralegals to communities farther away from the paralegal office, during which they interact with community members and learn about their problems. They provide information, education, legal advice and assistance as needed and admit cases that the parties may ordinarily not be able to take to the office because of distance.

[4] See 1 above, pg 6.

© 2011, sierraexpressmedia.com. All rights reserved.

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