Africa: 3 Reasons Why Recognition and Financing of Paralegals is Not Working and What We Can Do About It

It was assumed that with the enactment of legal aid laws, paralegals would benefit from financial and material support from the state. However, this has not been the case. If anything, most state institutions, in interpreting their various legal aid laws, constrain the space for paralegals to conduct legal empowerment programs to the detriment of grassroots communities. Various state regulations require community paralegals to go through long, expensive training , pay licensing and operation fees and in some instances a high level of formal education. Undoubtedly, this excludes a majority of community based paralegals who have been doing this work for years. In the opening session of the NGOs forum in 71st ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, legal empowerment organizations from around Africa jointly reflected on this issue and proposed ways in which organizations can collaborate with African states to meaningfully and effectively promote accessible justice for Africans.

Listen to the full recording.

From the discussions, it is evident that we need to revisit the question of state recognition and financing, and there are 3 main reasons for this:

  1. State capture and exclusion of the community based paralegal.

The philosophy of most African Governments on community-based paralegals is disempowering and retrogressive to the movement. In most cases, the definition of a paralegal is limited to those who are accredited through a state led training program with prohibitive entry requirements and which often insist on specific academic qualifications. This excludes a majority of community based paralegals who have little to no formal education even though they may have many years of experience in providing justice services. The Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative (IWEI) works with paralegals from the rural areas in Kano, Nigeria. Their literacy levels are very low. For women, it is worse owing to the patriarchal nature of the communities they live in that prevents them from accessing formal education. IWEI therefore conducts very basic training and conducts oral tests and quizzes for their paralegals in the local languages. Lady Ellen Women’s Aid Forum (LEWAF) in Sierra Leone works with a pool of paralegals, some of whom are semi illiterate and some who have never received any formal education - yet they are providing justice services in their communities.

In Tanzania, to be recognized as a paralegal one must either have a bachelor’s degree, any diploma or certificate or any certificate of secondary education. In addition, the paralegal must undergo a 6-month state led training at a prescribed fee. In Uganda, the Legal Aid Bill defines a paralegal as someone who has a recognized qualification in law. It therefore seems that the legal regime is also headed towards the exclusion of community based paralegals. Additionally, there is no indication that the Bill will recognize existing legal empowerment movements once it comes into force. The state, in conceptualizing the community based paralegal as a profession, introduces the huddles that come with professional qualifications; accreditation, licensing and regulation by a state agency.

Further, the law creates a dilution of the core qualities of paralegals, that is, their dissociation from the state. The State is known to capture and incorporate. The quality of dissociation from the state is what creates trust for community paralegals within the community. So much so that sometimes handling matters through paralegals seems to be the better choice than going through the formal system. Therefore, state capture of paralegal services, in the name of recognition, carries the risk of creating another arm of civil service. The strength of a paralegal lies in the connection to the community.

  1. Inaccessible, inflexible and costly trainings

“When we first started training paralegals, we had these grand ideas of what a paralegal should be. That they must have secondary school education, that they must be able to speak English. But in the communities we serve, people don’t speak English, they speak Hausa. We relooked our training criteria and focused on bringing the law to the people in a way that can be understood; that they can use to resolve conflicts for themselves. We stopped insisting that training had to be done in a certain way. We need to be flexible. We want justice to be accessible to everybody”. Amina Hanga - IWEI

CSO led training programs for community based paralegals are sponsored, short, abridged, flexible and accessible. To participate in a state-led training programme, community based paralegals are expected to pay a fee, and in some countries like Tanzania and Zambia, they are required to pay registration and licensing fees to provide legal aid services. Consequently, a majority of paralegals will stop offering their services, if they have not already , as they simply cannot meet these unfair requirements. As it is already, a majority of community based paralegals work on a voluntary basis and are often forced to use their own resources to assist justice seekers.

With State recognition of community based paralegals, the tradeoff involves civic actors replacing their respective training curriculum with that co-developed by the state agencies. In Kenya, an accredited paralegal must go through a proposed 1-year training course which is certified by the Council for Legal Education (CLE) and at a prescribed fee. The length of the proposed training portrays a formalized, rigid and professional qualification. This is a departure from the training programs on the ground, which are more flexible, customized, accessible and practical in nature. The training programme is tailor-made for professional paralegals who may not be keen on community based services. Legal empowerment organizations have long viewed paralegalism as a skill as opposed to a profession. The paralegals undertake short term skills transfer training courses, cognizant that they are community members with other activities to carry out in the community, in addition to paralegal services.

  1. Little to no money for paralegals

"The concept of sustainability of community based paralegal services should not be an afterthought, but part of the law making process"- Tshenolo Tshoaedi, CAOSA, South Africa.

In most cases, legal recognition of community based paralegals does not come with substantive financing to support the work, as illustrated in the examples below:

  1. In Kenya, despite the enactment of the Legal Aid Act, the National Legal Aid Service is faced with human resource, fiscal, and administrative limitations. Additionally, the Legal Aid Fund is yet to be operationalized. Thus, a majority of the indigent are unable to exercise their right of access to justice.

  2. In Nigeria, the Legal Aid Council has made public statements acknowledging the vital role played by community-based paralegals in closing the access to justice gap for the poor, and has endorsed the development of national standards and ethics. However, these statements fall far short of the level of action and resources urgently needed to tackle the scale of injustices faced by tens of millions of Nigerians on a daily basis.

  3. In Zambia, the 2021 Legal Aid Act recognizes paralegals but restricts the legal aid fund to the Legal Aid Board and Legal Practitioners under the judiciary. This, therefore, means that community-based paralegals remain financially unsupported by the state despite them setting up desks in correctional facilities, police stations, subordinate courts and communities to provide legal aid and mediation services to clients.

  4. In Sierra Leone, the Legal Aid Board employs paralegals to provide paralegal services. However, there are only few who get this opportunity and their work is focused on criminal justice. There is still a need for sustained funding to train and deploy more paralegals across Sierra Leone.

  5. In Malawi, paralegals are recognized in the Legal Aid Act of 2010 as Legal Aid Assistants. However, the government is yet to secure funding for the Legal Aid Bureau to support the work of Legal Aid Assistants and, more broadly, legal aid.

  6. In Zimbabwe, the Legal Aid Directorate which is mandated to provide legal assistance is under-resourced and is unable to provide comprehensive legal assistance to marginalized and vulnerable groups.

Here is what can we do:

Continue to build evidence on the important work of community based paralegals and why they need sustainable, flexible and accessible funding.

FIDA Uganda partnered with ICJ Kenya and the Legal Empowerment Network to conduct a study in Sub-Saharan Africa on the institutional responses to Gender Based Violence (GBV) during the pandemic and the role of legal empowerment groups in particular. The study includes findings from Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In summary, the pandemic has highlighted the key role which community-based justice actors play in mitigating violence, enabling survivors to access justice and holding State actors accountable. As the work of gender justice organisations was limited owing to various lockdown measures, it therefore primarily fell on the paralegal networks established prior to the pandemic. This emphasised the role of community based paralegals in addressing GBV at the grassroots level.

Sustained and targeted regional advocacy

The African Union identifies justice as a key aspiration for member states in the AU 2063 Agenda which is based on 7 aspirations. Aspiration No. 3 aspires among many other things for Africa to have affordable and timely access to justice for all. This can only occur where state financing is prioritised and allocated to strengthen institutions and fund programs aimed at achieving Aspiration 3. Through various submissions before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights at the 69th and 71st sessions, legal empowerment organisations are calling for the AU to explicitly include targets that address the justice needs of everyday Africans in the next 10-year plan of the 2063 agenda. This includes committing resources that emphasize sustainable legal empowerment models that recognize the central role of paralegals in delivering affordable and timely access to justice for all. Crucially, this government funding must not affect the independence and autonomy of community based paralegals. The question around regulation involves creating an environment where users of the services that are provided by community based paralegals have some mechanism of protection. To this end, legal aid laws should allow for regulation of community based paralegals through communities, Non-Governmental Organizations and paralegal networks, and must protect the freedom and flexibility of grassroots justice actors.

Document successful cases of State - paralegal collaboration at local levels

  • In Uganda, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, community based paralegals formed crucial relationships with local administration such as chiefs, elders and police to identify and address GBV cases. The relationship in particular with police officers was mutually beneficial, as these actors made referrals to one another and responded to cases in areas that were out of reach for one or the other. Police officers attended FIDA Uganda’s community awareness-raising activities during the pandemic, which enabled paralegals to carry these activities out without running the risk of arrest.
  • In Kenya, community based paralegals are active members of the Court Users Committees within their respective regions, where they are recognized by the judiciary as crucial justice actors and provide valuable input in improving justice services at the respective courts. In addition, in a community justice center in Korogocho , run by paralegals, the Makadara Law Court refers cases on non-custodial offences for supervision to this justice centre. The probation office in Mombasa has donated office space for ex- inmates who were trained as paralegals while incarcerated , to operate a community justice center and provide legal aid services to surrounding communities.

What we see, in some cases, is that when community based paralegals engage local state institutions in a concrete way, recognition here refers to the work and the value of paralegals being known, enhanced and contributed to. Through these strategic collaborations based on mutual respect and understanding , paralegals can often get state institutions to move and make justice accessible. That process of direct engagement at the local level has a lot of potential. These examples are encouraging for the field because it shows that recognition and collaboration, in whatever forms, are possible and can offer tangible results for justice. These types of models need to be replicated and financed where applicable. Of course, it is not in all cases where this kind of collaboration is possible and in instances where community based paralegals cannot work in this way , other modes of financing and recognition would need to be explored.

Hit the pause button; re-evaluate

The paralegal movement as a whole needs sustainable funding. As proposed during this forum, perhaps we need to go back to the drawing board and reconceptualize community paralegalism -looking at among many other things, how paralegals could possibly monetise their skills and identify creative financing models.

@poorvichitalkar @AnnetteMbogoh @aminahanga @andrewmaki @jabobs @phillipsabuni @cliffmsiska @smkoroma @TshenMasha @LinetteduToit @Wigayi @kanangaandrews @ismailbangis @POSJonathan @SAppiahHonny @lauragoodwin


This is rich and very impressive. Funding, State recognition and continuos training for paralegals and prospective paralegals is very fundamental to drive the social change for all inclusive legal and justice dispensation to all and sundry. I have been pushing for training as a paralegal officer in my community, even gotten in touch to “Legal Aid Council” in my state in Nigeria for sometime now but no positive reply to date.

This has really been affecting people( the less privileged) assessing justice without hindrance where majority of them don’t really know how to get in touch with the council due to the fear of police brutality. I will be glad if there is an opportunity for Paralegal training here to not only help but support my community.

From a Journalist/Media Consultant/ Development, Drug & Legal advocate/ Founder, Youth Anti-Drug Campaign Africa ( YADCA).


Aimee our greatest problem is funding and retraining of Community Paralegals in Africa, the time spent to investigate a single case and the finances needed to move around and get justice for the victims, who are mostly the Urban poor with no finances to support the Paralegals, and since we work for NGOs with rules and regulations we need to abide to and keep the ethics of our profession, it’s almost next to impossible for us to complete our investigation and bring the perpetrators to justice without thinking outside the box to generate the needed funds to complete our investigations and take the matter to court to get justice for SGBV case’s, Domestic Violence cases, Child abuse case’s, Police Accountability cases, Forced eviction cases and livelihood cases which are rampage in our communities and societies. Something needs to be urgently done to bridge this gap so that justice can be delivered speedily for the Urban poor.

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