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What to expect of Paralegals with the Legal Aid Board

What to expect of Paralegals with the Legal Aid Board

The Legal Aid Board took a giant step towards expanding access to justice by deploying thirty-five Paralegals around the country in December 2016. Thanks to support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) which will last for one year.

The addition brings to a total of forty-sixty the number of Paralegals on the staff of the scheme. This does not include volunteers. Prior to the addition, the Board had eleven full-time Paralegals – two in the Western Area and nine in the three Regional Headquarter Towns.  It also had paralegal volunteers in Port Loko, Kambia and Kono.

The Board now has at least two paralegals in each of the twelve districts upcountry. The Western Urban has eight Paralegals while the Western Rural has five. This means the Board has a presence in every district in the country. This is good news for our clients – the poor and vulnerable – who face a lot of challenges accessing justice at both formal and informal level.

This is not good enough because Section 14 (2) of the Legal Aid Act 2012 provides that the ‘Board shall appoint at least one Paralegal to each Chiefdom.’  I agree but they say the journey of a million miles starts with the crucial first step.

Now, what should people expect from our Paralegals?  Also, what support should they give Paralegals to ensure maximum benefit from the scheme? Section 14 (2) (a) of the Act provides that Paralegals ‘provide advice, legal assistance and legal education to the Paramount Chief and the inhabitants of the Chiefdom,’ while Section 14 (2) (b) provides that ‘where appropriate to assist in diverting certain cases to the formal justice system.’

The Board’s Paralegals provide Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service for minor offences which are of a non-criminal nature. They also work closely with the Police, prison officers, formal and informal courts including ADR services (ADR) provided by actors which are not governed by the Local Court Act 2011. This includes such ADR services provided by Paramount Chiefs, Tribal Authorities, Religious and Women’s Leaders and other Actors in the community.

Please note that the informal justice systems as defined in a study by the Danish Institute of Human Rights, based on a cooperation with the East Africa Law Society ‘encompass the range of systems and mechanisms that are outside the ordinary courts and justice institutions and yet are trusted and used by people to resolve disputes and maintain social order. These include (i) those based in the traditional structure of village heads and chiefs, (ii) those based in religious structures and authorities, (iii) those based in the (local) administrative structures of government and (iv) those based on NGO promoted mediation schemes performed at community level by paralegals or village mediators.’

So, what are the Paralegals doing in your community? I must hasten to underline that my definition of Paralegal is consistent with the report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, based on the East Africa Law Society in December 2011. The report defines Paralegals as: ‘Persons, in general, are without a law degree, but possess the relevant skills and training to provide some legal services to individuals and groups in need of legal aid.’

Our Paralegals are among the most experienced in the field having trained and worked as Paralegals in their respective communities for several years. Also, they were resident in the community at the time they were recruited.

While the legal services provided by Paralegals are limited to indigent adults, children, aged and retires, legal education is targeted at all and sundry. This is because an educated public on issues of law and the justice system will improve access to justice. Also, it will empower people to assert their rights while accessing the justice system.  More importantly, monitoring of rights issues at police stations and correctional centers will benefit all and sundry coming into contact with these justice sector institutions.  These include rights of suspects and accused persons as provided for in the Constitution and International Human Rights Instruments.

They also assess the condition of the cell, determine the number of suspects and accused persons held therein as against the capacity of the facility and whether the detainees include children. This is because all the Police Stations in the country do not have a cell for children. In most cases child suspects are held in adult cells.

Additionally, they assess whether arrest and detention of suspects meet constitutional provisions. They provide legal services where these provisions have been breached. This includes challenging detentions which go beyond periods provided by the constitution.  They also assist suspects with securing bail, monitoring investigations and statement taking.

Recently, on Wednesday, February 1 to be exact, I was at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headquarters on Pademba Road in Freetown to monitor a complaint filed by Parliament against one of Sierra Leone’s leading human rights activists, Abdul Fatoma of the Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI). I must confess I was impressed with the reception accorded me. I sat there listening to two police officers obtain statement from him and throughout the time I was satisfied with the manner it was conducted.

But the relationship is not always rosy.  One of our new paralegals went to the Allen Town Police Station and was prevented from doing his work because the Police claimed they had not been informed of the visit. They further claimed that they were not aware of the work of the Board. You and I know this is far from the truth, more so for officers in the Western Area. The Board prides its relationship with justice sector institutions since its inception in May 2015. The Board had a partnership agreement with the Sierra Leone Police and the Sierra Leone Correction Service one month later in June.

Recently, Police officers poured scorn on one of our Paralegals for drawing attention to the fact that the police station has not got a cell for children and therefore cannot detain a child suspect who had been taken there by a high profile politician.

The visit to Correctional Centers by Paralegals has provided insights into prison conditions, prison population, remand inmates without indictments and related human rights issues. Through these visits, the Board was able to identify the so-called forgotten remand inmates. This includes those who have been on remand for up to eleven years in extreme cases. Some of who had served more time on remand than the maximum sentence for such offences if they were convicted.

Also, they provide an accurate picture of accused persons without indictment. This information has helped the Board in engagements with the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice to ensure indictments were served on those concerned.

Prior to the opening of Magistrate Courts in every district in the country, accused persons will spends months or years behind bars waiting for  their cases to be heard in court.

The decision of the current Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Hon. Joseph Kamara to establish seventeen Magistrate and three High Courts around the country is worthy of mention. The impact has been immense. The Paralegals have also been able to provide accurate figures of prison population. This has enable the Board to self-assess in terms of efforts at decongesting correctional centers around the country. The Board has used this information to draw attention to the increases and thus proffered suggestions to reverse this trend by way of lessening the bail condition, shortening sentences especially for minor offences and referrals to institutions outside the criminal justice system.

The Paralegals have also been very active in the informal justice sector including the Alternative Dispute Resolution services provides by actors not governed by the Local Court Act 2011.  There have been a check on the excesses of actors providing Alternative Dispute Resolution services bothering on prohibitive fines, arrest and detention which are illegal, fees to visit crime scene and disputed property and the treatment of women.

Expectedly, the relationship has not been smooth but a lot of progress has been made. For instance, there have been cases referred to the Board in Kenema by Paramount Chiefs in the Eastern Province. The Board in Kenema has mediated a matter between a Court Chairman and a resident of Kailahun District.

The Paralegals have made the most impact in this area. They have resolved an impressive number of community level problems which would have cost a lot of money and time were these matters taken to the formal or the local courts.

Author Joseph Dumbuya is the Registrar at the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board

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