Providing concrete solutions to basic justice problems: How community-based paralegals are making a difference in rural Sierra Leone
Towards the end of 2010, the number of paralegals providing free basic justice services in Sierra Leone doubled, as donors joined with non-governmental organizations and community-based groups to create a nation-wide network of legal assistance. Funded by the Open Society Foundations, the German aid agency GIZ, Trocaire, and Christian Aid, with technical support from the World Bank, Timap, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, new field offices were opened by Timap for Justice, Access to Justice Law Center, AdvocAid, BRAC, Justice and Peace Commission/Caritas, and Methodist Church Sierra Leone in 16 locations across the country. These paralegals had earlier undertaken an intensive six-week training course which consisted of class room lectures provided in part by prominent legal experts on various law subjects and field based-work supervised by very experienced paralegals. (Photo: Sonkita Conteh, author)
Over the past few months, these paralegals have handled a wide assortment of cases, ranging from child support to inheritance to employment practices and abuse of authority. They have provided basic legal information and advice, assistance navigating institutions of authority and some litigation support. They have primarily used their mediation and negotiation skills to get the parties themselves to fashion out and agree on mutually acceptable solutions and have also been involved in some community organizing. Crucially, the paralegals have been able to bridge the gap between the customary and formal legal systems by providing meaningful assistance to people across both systems as required.
This article will attempt to bring out some examples of the range of cases paralegals deal with in order to provide a better understanding of how the model actually works and to demonstrate the real impact of their work in the lives of ordinary people. It is hoped that it will also help allay the lingering suspicions of those in or connected to the legal profession, who are still sceptical about a role for paralegals in the justice sector.
School authority requiring extra charges from parents
A secondary school in Kabala had asked for extra school charges from parents during interviews for new students going into JSS 1. The school had asked for interview fees, development fees and other charges which are not part of the government-recommended charges. Some parents who could not ordinarily afford such sums and who were unable to persuade the school to drop those extra charges went to the paralegal office in Kabala for help. They had been compelled to pay, otherwise their children would not have been allowed in school. Faced with this unpleasant choice, some had to borrow the money from friends and family to pay the extra school charges. The paralegals entered their complaint in the appropriate case form and obtained signed statements from them. They then went to the principal of the school to let him know about the complaint and to get his own side of the story. The principal denied knowing that parents were asked to pay those extra charges and blamed the teachers on the interview committee. He conceded that the extra school charges were improper after the paralegals referred him to the provisions of the education policy and agreed to refund monies to the parents who had been made to pay the extra charges, including all the complainants. He also undertook not to exceed the recommendations on extra charges in the education policy. A few weeks later, when the BECE results were released, the principal contacted the paralegal office claiming that some of the teachers wanted to ask parents to pay similar extra charges fees but he had rejected it. The paralegals commended him and urged him to continue to be resolute. The parents who made the complaint to the paralegal office confirmed that they had received a refund from the school.
Lay magistrate demanding ‘withdrawal fee’ from civil suit parties
A man reported to the paralegal office in Lunsar that he had been taken to the magistrate’s court by a group of people whom he owed some money. He had been contracted to provide certain services by a contractor in Makeni and as a result had to enlist this group of people to carry out the terms of the contract. After paying him an advance, the contractor refused to pay the rest of the money even though the work had been satisfactorily completed and despite repeated requests. Consequently, he could not pay the remaining compensation to the group. He wanted the paralegals to help him retrieve the outstanding amount from the contractor so that he could settle his creditors and bring the case against him in the magistrate’s court to an end. After admitting the case and obtaining his statement, one of the paralegals, accompanied by the man, went to Makeni to meet up with the contractor, inform him about the complaint and hear him out. He admitted owing the man, but was reluctant to indicate how and when payment was going to be made. The paralegal then explained to him the likely consequences, including payment of interest and costs, if the matter was taken to court. The contractor was persuaded and immediately came up with part of the amount owed which the paralegal, on the instruction of the man collected. Returning, the paralegal invited both the man and the group to the office and brokered an agreement between the parties which saw the group of creditors accepting payment of the debt in return for the withdrawal of the civil suit from the magistrate’s court. The paralegal then accompanied the parties to the next sitting at which the plaintiffs informed the court that they no longer wished to proceed with the suit because the debt had been paid. One of the lay magistrates then informed the parties that they had to pay a ‘withdrawal fee’ of Le 300,000, or they will be compelled to proceed with the suit. Despite the intervention of the paralegal, the lay magistrate refused to vary his stance and the paralegal had to request for the intervention of one of the supervising lawyers which resulted in the withdrawal of the suit without payment of any fee and a suitably reprimanded lay magistrate, who, it has been confirmed, stopped asking for ‘withdrawal fee’.
Non-payment of labourers for work done
During a mobile clinic session at Rogbere, 6 men reported to the paralegals that they were hired by a contractor of a certain construction company to do work on the Masiaka-Rogbere road for the lump sum payment of Le 1,600,000 (one million six hundred thousand leones). They did the work but the contractor failed to pay them as agreed. They made several complaints to the youth chairman, ward councillor and the chief without any success with the contractor always maintaining that he had not been paid by SLRA which awarded him the contract. One of the paralegals called the contractor on the phone and he said the same thing, but this time promising to pay the men from his personal funds- he never did. The paralegal then went to the SLRA office in Port Loko to make enquiries and was informed that it was the SLRA head office in Freetown that awarded contracts. The paralegal came to the head office in Freetown and spoke to the Director who, after the paralegal’s explanation, including the possibility of legal action against the construction company, revealed that the contractor had been completely paid off a long time ago for the work. As soon as the meeting ended, the paralegal called the contractor and confronted him with the newly acquired information but he again denied receiving payment from SLRA whereupon the paralegal disclosed that he was in the office of the Director who then called the contractor, berating his shabby treatment of the six villagers and warning him of the real possibility of him being disqualified from future contract considerations as a result of his improper conduct. At the end of their conversation, the contractor immediately telephoned the paralegal saying that he was going right away to his bank in Makeni to get the money to pay the men off and wanted the paralegal to witness the transaction. He also begged the paralegal to put in a good word for him with the Director, but the paralegal responded in the negative. At Rogbere junction the contractor handed over the Le 1,600,000 to the paralegal which was then paid to the 6 men for their labour.
The uniqueness of the methodology
Paralegals use a variety of tools to tackle basic justice problems. They can mediate, negotiate, navigate institutions, provide information or organise communities to take collective action. When one or more of these fail in a particular case or a party refuses to comply with the terms of a mediated agreement, the paralegals can rely on the supervising lawyers to provide direct legal representation or high level advocacy. The muscle to litigate is a significant part of the methodology as it not only ensures compliance by the parties involved but generally adds strength to the paralegal’s work. The availability of a wide range of problem-solving tools allows for inventiveness and flexibility on the side of the paralegals, which may not be available in other models of justice service delivery and accounts for the high rate of resolution of justice problems by the paralegal. Paralegals are not tied to their offices or bound to a specific location. They reach out to distant communities and individuals through periodic meeting sessions called mobile clinics at which they provide information on a variety of topics reflecting particular areas of need and endeavour to answer some if not all of their queries. This ensures that communities without paralegal offices also benefit from the completely free services that they offer. Without a doubt, the known key players in the justice sector, like judicial officers, lawyers and the police cannot provide these basic but high value services which rural communities find particularly useful and for which demand is rising.
The reality of the situation in Sierra Leone is that owing to several factors, accessing formal justice systems is impossible for many. Even where accessible, formal systems are so clogged up and susceptible to delay and corruption that obtaining a fair and speedy outcome cannot always be guaranteed. This rather grim national reality begs for interventions on several levels. On the ‘supply side’, state institutions need to be reformed and made more efficient and corruption-free. But these alone cannot guarantee universal access as formal justice systems, no matter how well improved, will not be able to process every single dispute of the populace. Hence the need for community-level initiatives and interventions to help meet the ever increasing dispute- resolution demands of the people. Community-based paralegals, as one method of primary justice service delivery have been and continue to be instrumental in helping the poor get concrete solutions to their basic justice problems. This comes through clearly in the case examples discussed and in several independent evaluations of their work. It is a methodology that holds great potential for transforming the justice landscape in Sierra Leone and as part of the mixed-model legal aid scheme soon to be enacted, will become a critical part of legal aid services nation-wide.
 See Justice Initiative press release of 20 August 2010 announcing the expansion of basic justice services available on http://www.soros.org/initiatives/justice/focus/legal_capacity/news/sierra-leone-paralegal-expansion-20100820.
 Between law and society: Paralegals and the provision of primary justice services in Sierra Leone, Open Society Institute, 2010, pg. 19.
 The Government of Sierra Leone Justice Sector Reform Strategy and Investment Plan 2008-2010 states that 70% of the country’s population cannot access formal justice institutions.
 See for example the World Bank, Justice for the Poor Report on the work of Timap for Justice published in 2009.
© 2011, https:. All rights reserved.