[Member Spotlight] Paralegal Alliance Network

This member spotlight features an interview with @phillipsabuni, of the Paralegal Alliance Network in Zambia.

They were one of the earlier members of the Network from our first year in 2012 and successfully advocated for the inclusion of community paralegals in the country’s legal aid law last year, so we are excited to profile them here! @ChilesheK @chimembegeorge @kenny @matb @Rexie

Adoption of legal empowerment approach

We have been doing legal empowerment work generally since 2000 but the Challenging Disadvantages in Zambia: People with Psychosocial and Intellectual Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System project has been active since 2012.

What is your organization’s mission?

PAN’s mission is to leverage the collective power of its network of 14 civil society organizations to improve access to justice for all indigent detainees and in particular to ensure that the rights of persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, both victims and defendants, are upheld during their interface with the criminal justice system thus challenging the acute discrimination experienced by this constituency throughout the criminal justice chain.

What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?

Persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities in Zambia experience discrimination in their interactions the criminal justice system at all levels, as both victims and defendants. Investigative and testimonial procedures do not take into account challenges in understanding or expression, resulting—from the perspective of victims —in low levels of reporting on offenses against them, failure by the police to bring charges; poor investigation of cases, lack of opportunity to testify, and general impunity. For defendants, there is misuse of the criminal justice apparatus for non-criminal behaviour, unnecessary arrest, forced confessions, and indefinite detention. There is also inadquate knowledge, information, skills by justice and health officers to appropriately handle cases involving persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities. Mental health services are heavily centralised.

How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems?

To address the problem, we undertake:

  • Direct legal services through our paralegal network.

  • Supporting self-advocates.

  • Trainings of justice and health officers to appropriately handle cases involving persons with disabilities.

  • Monitoring to ensure reviews for persons detained at “His Excellency’s Pleasure” (indefinitely without trial).

  • Development of a guide to outlining for justice and health officers on how to handle cases involving these persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities appropriately.

  • Training of media on disability rights and appropriate reporting.

  • Development of informational materials to create public awareness and challenge stigma.

  • Advocacy to repeal the antiquated Mental Disorders Act and other laws that discriminate against persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities.

  • Detailed research undertaken and published to create a baseline against which to measure our progress.

  • Memorandum of Understanding entered into with the Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure buy-in and roll out of project activities.

  • Two hundred and twenty justice and health officers trained in appropriate case management.

  • Twenty self-advocates active and are speaking about their welfare in the communities.

  • More than 48 people released from detention after reviews were conducted by Psychiatrists.

  • Five people released by court order from prisons after being held for between 5 years to 30 years in prison without trial.

  • More than 102 cases attended to by paralegals.

  • The section of the Mental Disorders Act which referred to people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities as “idiots” and “imbeciles” declared void by the Court.

  • We have ensured that provisions in the new Mental Health Bill that is being developed to repeal and replace the Mental Disorders Act are in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

  • About 40 journalists empowered with knowledge on issues surrounding persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities.

  • A documentary film has been developed and is a powerful advocacy tool.

  • Disability rights module being developed as part of paralegal training in Zambia.

  • PAN members and paralegals equipped to manage cases involving persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities.

  • Memorandum of Understanding entered into with the Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure buy-in and roll out of project activities.

  • Provisions in the new Mental Health Bill that is being developed to repeal and replace the Mental Disorders Act are in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

  • Regular reviews of persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities held during His Excellency’s Pleasure in correctional facilities which has resulted into more than 48 persons released.

  • Involvement of the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs in the project to ensure that services reach rural constituencies.

  • Court declaration that part of the Mental Disorders Act is unconstitutional.

  • Increased public knowledge on rights of persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in the criminal justice system and communities.

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

Recognizing the profound discrimination experienced by people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in their interaction with the criminal justice system in Zambia, PAN has embarked on an ambitious and innovative program of work, in a context where stigma and suspicion and even fear of people with mental health challenges are deeply rooted. It began with groundbreaking research. The resultant report, Challenging Disadvantage: people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in the criminal justice system, was completed in February 2015 and is unprecedented in the disability rights field. Paralegals are now focused on ensuring access to justice for this extremely marginalized constituency through a range of activities. These include, inter alia, providing direct legal assistance; fostering self-advocacy; and training, law reform and public sensitization. Good progress has been made, however, much remains to be done to tackle entrenched discrimination and bias. To this end PAN is currently doubling its efforts to deliver information, training and workforce development; consolidate the establishment of self-advocates groups; and most innovatively, to test a common approach or “pathway” for health and justice professionals to the handling of cases involving those with cognitive or psychosocial disabilities. Almost no one globally is doing this groundbreaking work and PAN is thus building the field not only in Zambia but in the southern Africa region and beyond.

You can learn more about the Paralegal Alliance Network on their website


If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below

_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 at #memberspotlight.

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I am impressed with their initiatives towards access to justice. I want to hear more about their effort to use media to reach people

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