[Member Spotlight] Legal Aid Office (LAO) Pakistan

Legal Empowerment in Practice: Legal Aid Office (LAO) Pakistan

This member spotlight features an interview with @OmarManiar, a legal empowerment practitioner and legal reform specialist, working at Legal Aid Office (Pakistan)

LAO has been providing free legal aid to prisoners in Pakistan since 2004. The organization has also been conducting legal literacy programs throughout the country since then. LAO started a prison paralegal program in 2013 which is active and continues to train, deploy and support prison paralegals in the province of Sindh.

What is your organization’s mission?

To work specifically for the welfare of adult male, female and juvenile prisoners held in prison in the province of Sindh, Pakistan by:

a. Raising the level of legal and rights based awareness among prisoners and prison staff;

b. Providing legal assistance to underprivileged under trial prisoners;

c. Advocating for and providing goods to improve living conditions in prison;

d. Ensuring oversight and accountability in prisons;

e. Conducting research to better understand the prison structure, administration and problems faced by prisoners.

What problems or issues does your legal empowerment work address?

Prisons in the province of Sindh are overcrowded and underfunded. Living conditions vary, but do not meet prescribed international standards. Close to 77% of the total prison population of above 20,000 people are under-trials and conviction rates on merit are below 5%. In such an environment, LAO’s works to empower prison inmates to ensure they can seek adequate legal representation, particularly in matters of bail and criminal procedure, and to ensure they are aware of and can exercise their rights to appropriate treatment during incarceration as well as seek legal redress after they return to society.

How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems / issues you address?

LAOThe Legal Aid Office has been operating since 2004. Over the span of 14 years, the organization has provided legal aid to over 8,000 men, women and juveniles held in prison. LAO has also filed close to 6,000 bail applications.

We employ legal awareness, legal aid, and policy reform initiatives to address the issues faced by prison inmates. We conduct two types of legal awareness programs: An intensive, 16 hour legal awareness program that covers the constitution and fundamental rights, criminal law and procedure, prison rules, property law, juvenile justice, and domestic and gender based violence. Participants that show interest and ability during this awareness program are selected as paralegals and receive further training on paralegal skills.

LAO also provides legal aid to an average of 1,400 individuals every year. Recipients of free legal assistance are screened using a means test and must fall into the category of casual, first time offenders accused of non-heinous crimes.

Since 2013, LAO has trained close to 800 paralegals across 9 prisons in the province. LAO paralegals have conducted legal awareness sessions for over 2000 new entrants in to the prison system in the province.

LAO also conducts regular vocational and rehabilitation trainings including adult literacy classes, football camps for juvenile offenders, sewing and embroidery classes, Montessori education for infants accompanying their mothers in jail as well as facilitates the provision of psycho-social services by partners. The organization is the single largest provider of legal aid in the country. The exclusive focus on benefiting incarcerated under-trial prisoners has led to an embedding of the organization into the government and prison system. LAO works closely with the provincial prison administration and the provincial government. As such, the prison system is our primary referral partner and the provincial government is our largest donor.

LAO has also compiled all prison regulations into one manual and has helped train prison staff on prison rules. The organization publishes an annual report that compiles and analyzes province-wide prison statistics and documents prison living conditions and failures in the criminal justice system. The report is considered an authentic representation of prison department performance. More recently, LAO played a large part in drafting new regulations for prisons in the province of Sindh, reflecting the experience of inmates and incorporating international best practices on rehabilitation and reformation.

Perhaps more importantly, the organization has raised awareness of the plight of prisoners held in an environment that is closed off to the general public. Over the course of 14 years, working with successive prison administrations, we have also helped move the focus away from punitive to reformative justice.

Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?

The LAO prison paralegal program relies entirely on volunteer convicts that are trained, deployed and supervised as paralegals. The approach of using volunteers is not necessarily novel, however, it is particularly effective in the context of a prison paralegal program. Volunteer paralegals significantly reduce the cost of supporting paralegals in their work. Convicts also have significant practical experience of the criminal justice system and the prison rules that govern the environment. And finally, our volunteer paralegals have all been in the same vulnerable position as the new entrants to prison that they assist.

The program is also embedded into the prison system through active engagement and participation by prison authorities. Gathering stakeholder buy-in has been instrumental to ensuring continuity of the program and garnering institutional support.

Finally, while the program is based around ensuring that paralegals are provided incentives for their work, the incentives are non-monetary and hence do no strain limited financial resources. Non-monetary incentives include certification after completion of training, engagement in a productive activity, the sense of giving back to the community, and awarding a remission in their prison sentence upon completion of the training program and periodically for their continued engagement as paralegals. The use of non-monetary incentives has been an important innovation to help motivate paralegals and compensate them for the services they provide.

Do you have any key tips or advice for other practitioners?

A key source of our success has been to understand the context well. All staff members, including senior management, spend a significant time in the ‘field’ to better understand our target audience and the environment in which we operate. We also try to be as evidence driven as possible, allocating resources based on empirically proven needs.

We strongly believe that legal empowerment practitioners must have an immersive experience in the communities they serve. Understanding the context through first-hand experience is essential for improving programming. Another key aspect of our success is managing relationships and building trust - with the community, with regulators and other actors in the area. In an environment where NGOs are often accused of profiteering, LAO has worked over many years to earn and keep the trust of all the stakeholders in the criminal justice system in the country.

Our programs also involve regular feedback loops so that programming continues to be responsive to actual needs and can keep pace with changing demands. All LAO programming includes rigorous monitoring and evaluation as well as impact assessment allowing us to learn along the way. We also try to ensure that our staff continues to innovate and that we don’t settle in to a routine way of doing things. Investing in staff training and sensitization, learning from successful examples in the country and around the world are key to our success.

What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?

LAO has partnered with various donors to fund the development of training material and some parts of paralegal training. The organization has an MoU with the prison service in order to facilitate access and ensure institutional support. We have also received funding from international donors working in legal empowerment as well as state funding for the provision of legal aid. By using paralegals to connect under trial prisoners with legal advice and legal aid, we have successfully made the case that the paralegal program should be considered part of legal aid and can be supported by funds allocated for the purpose.

Do you have any advice for other organizations about achieving scale?

The LAO prison paralegal program was piloted in one prison - Central Prison Karachi, the largest prison in the province with close to 6,500 prison inmates. The success of the program has led to its deployment in up to 9 out of the 21 prisons in the province, although the program currently operates in 5 prisons, each of which have a population of over 1000 inmates.

The model of using trained convict paralegals to empower under trial and convicted prisoners can be replicated in any prison where there is a sizable population - and hence, a demonstrated need for deployment of resources. Trained paralegals also benefit their own communities upon release by being a source of legal information and guidance on accessing justice through formal justice mechanisms.

What are the challenges you face in your work and how are you overcoming them?

The work of the Legal Aid Office is to challenge stigmas and stereotypes. The organization assists the poor and vulnerable in navigating a broken and corrupt criminal justice system. We face a number of challenges: Bar associations resisting the work of legal aid because they see it as a threat to their business, State authorities who see our work as aiding criminals, prison officials who view our presence as a hurdle to corrupt practices and society generally that has little sympathy for those in prison.

In this environment, LAO is committed to raising the voices of the unheard and ensuring that everyone is given a second chance. Over the course of 14 years, LAO has raised the profile of prisons in the province, drawing attention to living conditions, gaps in regulation, a lack of rehabilitation services and issues in criminal law and procedure. We have faced street protests and attacks on our offices by lawyers protesting against our operations. We have had our work restricted on account of terrorism and limited access to prison due to security concerns. We have reported and fought against corrupt practices in the prison department. And we have helped over 8,000 men, women and children by providing them with ethical legal representation.

Our paralegal service is an extension of our continued engagement with social stigma. All of our paralegals have been convicted of a crime, however, they are recognized for their potential to contribute to society and the prison community. The restitution of this dignity is an important motivating factor for our paralegals and our staff alike.

Are there any areas where you would benefit from collaboration with other network members?

LAO’s approach to legal empowerment is largely the result of work done by other network members. The organization could benefit further through learning exchanges and from member experiences, particularly in the areas of data management and impact evaluation.

You can learn more about LAO’s programs by watching this video on their Facebook page:

Legal Aid Office - What is a Prison Paralegal Program? جیل کے اندر پراليگل پروگرام کیا ہے؟ | Facebook


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Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network here (https://community.namati.org/tags/spotlights)

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