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10 Misconceptions about paralegals in Sierra Leone

10 Misconceptions about paralegals in Sierra Leone

A few among the many lawyers I have had the opportunity to discuss the subject of ‘paralegals’ with initially seemed to have deep suspicion of paralegals and their activities. Minutes into our conversation they realise that there is really no firm evidential basis to warrant a conviction so they drop all charges. Since I may not be able to talk to every individual lawyer or person who might have an unflattering opinion about the work of paralegals, I thought it prudent to put pen to paper and correct some of the most common misconceptions of paralegals. As the discussion about the possible role of paralegals in the proposed legal aid framework for Sierra Leone develops, I hope that this piece will provide clarity and balance to those involved in the process of shaping the draft legal aid bill for Sierra Leone. (Photo: Sonkita Conteh)

Here are some examples of the most popular misconceptions:

1.       Paralegals will impersonate lawyers

It is true that lawyers in Sierra Leone don’t carry badges or have identification tags to confirm who they really are – they only wear dark coloured suits.  Newspapers have reported stories of individuals impersonating lawyers and defrauding their victims. Maybe the Bar Association ought to do something about it or the public should become more aware and not assume that any conservatively dressed lady or gentleman is a lawyer. Paralegals are and will always be properly identified. They carry identification cards of the organisations they work for, which identifies them as paralegals and are obliged to display such cards at all times. Also, the draft legal aid bill provides for accredited organisations to identify themselves as providers of legal aid. This requirement will necessarily apply to paralegals working for the accredited organisation and any identification they carry will bear an accreditation mark of some sort. Additionally, paralegals do not just work by themselves, they are supervised by lawyers. As long as there are criminal elements in society, lawyers will be impersonated, but it is less likely that they will be impersonated by paralegals that are not only properly identified and gainfully employed, but who also work under lawyer’s supervision. Besides, the punishment for impersonation and the inevitable loss of employment is sufficient motivation for paralegals not to impersonate lawyers.

2.      Paralegals will charge fees

Even among lawyers, fees have always been a contentious matter with allegations of under or over-pricing of legal services making the rounds. Lawyers are a turf-conscious bunch and would rather not share the fee-charging privilege with anyone that is not of their stalk. In the US and some parts of Europe paralegals charge fees, but where is the evidence that paralegals have or will be charging fees in Sierra Leone? Organisations providing paralegal services locally like Timap for Justice have never charged fees for their services and have no plans of doing so. Their paralegals are paid monthly salaries and benefits like other employees and do not have need to request for fees from the persons they serve who are usually very poor and can never be able to afford the fees lawyers charge. Also, section 17 of the draft legal aid bill makes it an offence punishable by fine and/or imprisonment for any legal aid provider to charge fees for legal services. This clearly is an ample disincentive to paralegals.

3.      Paralegals will want to appear in court

A colleague once furiously whispered to me in court that he had it on good authority that certain people were toying with the idea of paralegals having audience in magistrates’ courts in areas where there were no lawyers – for that to happen, it would have to be over his dead body, he maintained. This gentleman’s sentiment typifies the lawyer’s protectionist attitude to his courtroom- lawyers only. Again, this clearly suppressed anger over what paralegals might do, like so many other concoctions, is misplaced. Organisations providing paralegal services never intended for paralegals to represent clients in court, that is why they employ lawyers to do legal representation. In terms of litigation, paralegals can and do provide lawyers with support services- filing and serving documents, chasing up witnesses, taking down notes during court sessions and more. To make assurance double sure, the draft legal aid bill makes it very clear that paralegals can only provide legal advice and assistance. Legal representation is the sole reserve of those who have the training- lawyers. I hope my friend is particularly reassured.

4.      Paralegals are not properly trained

For some lawyers, any training that falls short of the training required to become a legal practitioner is not adequate to participate in the sacred duty of dispensing justice. They forget that lawyers are just one of the many cogs in the ever-moving wheel of justice and that there are different roles and responsibilities, not always at the same level. Giving every actor in the justice sector training that is commensurate to a lawyer’s is both a waste of time and resources and indeed very unwise. Paralegal organisations like Timap have trained their paralegals to function effectively as paralegals not as lawyers otherwise they will be guilty of aiding impersonation. These paralegals are given both initial and on-going training on basic law subjects and dispute resolution tools and techniques and have access to manuals covering different areas. The training, mostly carried out by lawyers, is sufficient for paralegals to carry out their duties and where they are faced with matters that are clearly above their competence, they refer them to the supervising lawyer. In the future, paralegal training will be further enhanced and formalised- for instance, the proposed Judicial and Legal Training Institute will offer paralegal training and there are plans for other institutes and colleges to offer accredited paralegal courses.

5.      Paralegals don’t really know the law

Early on in my career, my pupil master gave me a golden piece of advice on how to become a good lawyer. He said, ‘a good lawyer is not the one who knows the law, but the one who knows where to find the law’. The law is so massive and diverse that no lawyer knows or will ever know it all, much less a paralegal. Paralegals are trained in the basics of the law to provide low-level advice and assistance to poor people mostly in rural areas on issues that affect their daily lives. They are not expected to master complex legal theories or legalese to impress their clients. They are meant to solve the justice problems of the people using simple and innovative means. They can always consult their manuals, the relevant statute or case law or a legal practitioner on any legal question that they may not readily have an answer for. That is why part of their training is about knowing where to find the law.

6.      Paralegals provide substandard services

While lawyers and paralegals may not have the same level or type of skill set, it is unfair and indefensible to hold that paralegals provide substandard services. The error is in trying to equate the work of a paralegal to that of a lawyer. Paralegals may not carry out forcible mergers and hostile takeovers because they are not trained for that and may not display the standard of drafting excellence or oratorical wit of a lawyer. Yet, they can mediate and ensure that a child is maintained in some far flung rural outpost where lawyers have never trod or help farmers get the much needed seed rice to plant before the sowing season ends. Justice problems vary in intensity and scope and cannot all be addressed by one person or group. Paralegals who tackle the ordinary, down-to-earth problems of communities contribute no less to the attainment of justice than their cousins who handle the more ‘glamorous’ matters.

7.      Paralegals cannot be controlled   

Some lawyers claim that there is no mechanism to control paralegals as such they would be a loose bunch, perpetually on a frolic of their own. I beg to differ. Unlike lawyers who may choose to work for the state, an organisation or ‘go private’, paralegals do not have that flexibility. Since the inception of paralegal work in Sierra Leone, paralegals have been employed only by organisations be they non-governmental organisations, the Bar Association or even the RSLAF. These organisations have not only exercised the normal oversight mandate of an employer over an employee but have ensured that their paralegals are supervised by trained lawyers. Before, there was very little scope for paralegals to go on a ‘frolic’ and now the draft legal aid bill, when enacted, will make it even more difficult for that to happen. This should allay the fears of the over-suspicious minds.   

8.      Paralegals are unsuccessful people

I have heard colleagues claiming that paralegals are nothing but failures and rejects who had ambitions to become lawyers but for some reason failed to realise their dreams and are now using backyard routes just to be associated with the law. This is so far from correct. Like in other areas, paralegal organisations set minimum requirements that a person must satisfy to become a paralegal and they steadfastly apply them. Besides, a good number of paralegals I have met recently are university graduates. While the legal profession is a noble profession, it will be disastrous for society and the justice sector if everyone became or aspired only to become lawyers. There are many roles and responsibilities in the justice sector that lawyers cannot perform and it is the height of bigotry to suggest that those performing these roles are lesser in value than lawyers.     

9.      Paralegals- it’s a new thing, can’t work

Every old thing currently in existence was at some point a new thing and the fact that old things still exist is evidence that ‘new’ is not synonymous to ‘certain failure’. The fear that this paralegal thing can’t work in Sierra Leone is irrational. The eternal pessimists do not point to any inherent defects in the paralegal model or show proof of places where it had been applied unsuccessfully. Available evidence indicates that the paralegal model has in fact been successful in developing countries like Malawi, Kenya and South Africa among others. In developed countries such as England and Canada paralegals have over the years successfully provided basic justice services and they continue to do so.  That aside, it is inaccurate to label a model that has served the poor so well for the past seven years as new. Organisations like Timap have been providing paralegal services to mostly rural communities at least since 2002. As most things in or about the rural areas go by largely unnoticed in the cities, paralegals are no exception. Fortunately the draft legal aid bill proves to be an exception and formally recognises paralegal organisations as partners in the provision of legal aid services in Sierra Leone.

10.    Who needs paralegals anyway? Just pay lawyers more

The law is just about lawyers and no one else- that’s why they are called ‘law-yers’. In line with this theme, someone was bold enough to hazard that the only group of people that could make justice work in Sierra Leone are lawyers. Her reasoning: lawyers prosecute, lawyers defend and lawyers become magistrates and judges. Lawyers are definitely relevant in the provision of justice services, but by no means are they the sole panacea to the justice problems of the people. For one, their relatively small number and general disinclination to extend to rural areas means that there is a problem of distribution across the population and let’s face it, the vast majority of justice problems do not require a lawyer-solution. Besides, how much is the ‘more’ in the ‘just pay lawyers more’?- the last time I checked, pupil barristers were asking for $ 3,000 after tax, plus other benefits and more senior lawyers wanted $5,000 and above to provide legal services in the provinces. Whose pocket is deep enough to meet this bill? Paralegals by contrast earn in the region of $100-$150.Even if paid fantastic sums, lawyers will still not be able, or want to do the leg work of paralegals.

Sonkita Conteh, LLM, LLB (Hons), BL
Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of Sierra Leone

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