An introduction to paralegal services in Sierra Leone
In the aftermath of the war, international donors and the government embraced the use of community-based paralegals as a way to advance justice, particularly in rural areas (95% of Sierra Leone’s lawyers are based in the capital, Freetown).
The Sierra Leone Legal Aid Act constitutes a model of comprehensive legislation recognising the role of paralegals as part of the legal aid framework. The Act is the result of intense advocacy work by CSOs and NGOs, which started in 2008 with the organisations of the first national consultative conference on legal aid in Sierra Leone, organised by the Minister of Justice and the Justice Sector Development Programme (Department of International Development – United Kingdom).
The Legal Aid Act contains a broad definition of legal aid, which reads as; ‘the provision of legal advice, assistance or representation to indigent persons’.
Legal advice and assistance are in turn defined as:
Providing information in both criminal and civil cases about the relevant law and legal processes, assisting with ADR, advising on legal issues, assisting with the drafting of documents other than instruments prohibited under section 24 of the Legal Practitioners Act, 2000, referring matters to legal practitioners and doing other things that do not constitute legal representation.
The Legal Aid Act also contains a definition of an “accredited paralegal”:
A person employed by the [Legal Aid] Board, a government department, an accredited civil society organization or a non-governmental organization and who has completed a training course in the relevant field of study at the Judicial and Legal Training Institute or an educational institution approved by the Board.
Sierra Leonean accredited paralegals must be employed by an accredited organisation and must have completed compulsory training. Each paralegal must also be accredited with the Legal Aid Board. Paralegals are expressly listed as legal aid providers, alongside with legal practitioners, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, and university law clinics, but can only
provide legal advice and legal assistance (not legal representation in court). Not being accredited or providing legal aid without a cooperation agreement constitutes a criminal offence, of which both individuals and organisations can be held liable.
Paralegals have successfully addressed an extensive array of justice problems through mediation, advocacy, education and community organising. Because of a shortage of lawyers in the country and Sierra Leone’s dualist legal structure, organisations like Timap’s frontline is made up of community-based paralegals rather than lawyers. The paralegals advance justice through a creative, flexible model combining education, mediation, negotiation, organizing, and advocacy. Paralegals may find that child mining is a community level problem – one that requires a community level solution. There are Mine Monitoring Units which are responsible for documentation and administering repercussions for child mining in the artisanal sector, but these are understaffed and underfunded.
Over a three-year period, between 2010 and 2013, the paralegal groups involved in the “scale up” paralegal project (Timap, Brac, Advocaid, AJLC and JSC) handled over 19,000 cases resolving slightly under 84% of them. Over 1500 mobile clinics or outreaches for community education and legal literacy were undertaken. Before funding cuts, the scale up project was providing access to paralegal services to an estimated 33% of the country’s population.
Timap for Justice launched its Community Mediation Programme (CMP). Communities choose volunteer mediators who are then trained and mentored by Timap’s paralegals. With the CMP Timap’s outreach expanded into 6 additional chiefdoms. Timap currently has seven Lead Paralegals – each serving a cluster of chiefdoms. Each paralegal is assigned to one Lead Paralegal. Lead Paralegals are points of reference for paralegals and assist or advise on cases. Lead Paralegals also perform administrative tasks and act as a go-between for paralegals and the Directors.
Additional information on paralegals in Sierra Leone
Applicable Constitutional obligations: Chapter 3 of the 1991 Constitution, Section 28(5).
Applicable Legislation: Sierra Leone Legal Aid Act (6 of 2012).
Resources: The Timap for Justice Paralegal Manual 2012.
Training required: 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. New paralegals also participated in a four-week intensive training course held at Hastings Police Training School in July with support from the Open Society Justice Initiative and GTZ.
Organizations: Timap for Justice, Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), Community Action Support Organization for Poverty Alleviation, Lawyer’s Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA), Ngopee Foundation, Sierra Leone Association of NGOs (SLANGO), National Forum for Human Rights (NFHR), Namati.