An introduction to paralegal services in Rwanda

As a country emerging from a recent period of intense conflict involving genocide every sector of society in Rwanda was affected from infrastructure to the law and justice system.  Following the truth and reconciliation process, the government now retains its commitment to ensuring justice.

The idea of having lay people involved in legal processes in Rwanda developed in the aftermath of the genocide in 1994. The government trained people with secondary level education in basic legal skills to serve as judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers and try matters at a community level. After a year of this formal process, government reverted to gacaca courts as an alternative mediation space to resolve the issues that arose. The gacaca courts were created to deal specifically with genocide cases and once all cases were tried they were declared defunct. However, mediation committees have been developed called abunzi committees. Per legislation, if the complaint value of a matter, excluding criminal matters, is lower than 5 million it must go through mediation.

Legal aid in Rwanda is accessed through seven categories of state- access to justice bureaus, mediation committees (Abunzi) and non-professional bailiffs and non-state institutions; university legal aid clinics, Rwanda Bar Association, professional bailiffs and civil society organisations.

The Legal Aid Forum in Rwanda is a network of 33 Rwandan and international organizations working in the field of the rule of law and human rights. The Forum is registered under Rwandan law. It has produced a series of tools and materials, including a directory for civil society legal aid providers. The Forum raises public awareness of the need for legal aid services in Rwanda and of the key providers. The Forum holds an annual Legal Aid Week in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice. The Forum is also a joint effort by its members to collectively monitor economic development and poverty reduction strategy indicators in relation to access to justice and legal aid. The Forum engages in advocacy through participation and contribution to the development of a national legal aid policy framework for Rwanda. The Forum runs a legal aid fund, through which rural-based legal aid service delivery is prioritized and funded. Work continues in the areas of capacity development, monitoring and evaluation, research, documentation and policy advocacy.

Rwanda has developed programs such as the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS I & II) and Vision 2020 development goals to guide the socio-economic and justice sector transformation of the country.

The Justice Sector in Rwanda was officially established in 2010. It serves as a structure which coordinates the work of state and non-state actors in the courts, government, military, civil society and the private sector to reach common objectives. The entities are tasked with strengthening the rule of law, promoting good governance and a culture of peace.

The Justice Sector in Rwanda shows progress in its quest to promote good governance and the rule of law, a large part of which requires ensuring access to justice. Laws and policies have been enacted and adopted to facilitate the provision of the legal aid services to indigent and vulnerable people, and legal aid services have been decentralized.

1,032 paralegals distributed among 10 organisations, paralegals in Rwanda provide a wide range of legal services to the local community, including legal information/education (most of the time, based on the problems face by the local community), legal advice, mediation services, orientation/accompaniment of their beneficiaries, etc.

In their interventions, paralegals deal mainly with civil issues (mostly on land, inheritance and family matters) and in some instances with worker’s issues (this is the case for trade unions) or criminal matters (mostly on domestic violence). In terms of profile, most paralegals are between 30 and 40 years old, therefore experienced and knowledgeable of the social issues and dynamics of the local community in which they intervene. Given that paralegals have to build confidence and knowledge while providing legal aid services to their beneficiaries, and that they also need to develop good working relations with the local institutions, this average age offers greater potential for an effective intervention of paralegals in their local community. The gender dimension is also well represented with more than 70% of women among paralegals.

Accessing the paralegalism sector is made through quite different mechanisms: the persons interested to work as paralegals often take the initiative to contact directly the organisations with paralegals programmes. Potential paralegals are also identified by their local environment (e.g. local authorities, churches, mosques, schools) directly in their own community. This diversified access helps ensuring that paralegals’ social background is representative of the Rwandan society and that paralegals are responsive to the needs of the local community.