During the Inaugural West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit 2020, organizations from the region identified regular exchanges as an important starting point for regional conversations and collaborations. To this end, a series of practitioner exchanges on paralegal models in West Africa has been developed.
This first learning exchange focused on the structure of paralegal programs in West Africa, more specifically thematic and geographic scope of cases handled by paralegals, the evolution of the thematic and geographic focus if any and strategies used to serve communities.
1. The thematic focus of organizations are responsive to and reflective of the justice needs of the communities they serve and work in.
In Sierra Leone, the Lady Ellen’s Women’s Aid Foundation (LEWAF) focuses on violence against women and girls. According to LEWAF, 52% of the population in Sierra Leone are women. However, their participation in social, political and economic matters remains poor. LEWAF works in cosmopolitan areas where there are a lot of economic activities undertaken mostly by women; and where the violence against them is visible.
In Nigeria, the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative (IWEI) focuses mostly on women and girls as well as the criminal justice system in Kano State, Northern Nigeria. This thematic focus was informed by the patriarchal and conservative nature of the community in Kano State which affects women disproportionately. In most cases women lack education, do not know their rights or where to begin to look for justice.
In the urban areas in Nigeria there is support and various interventions for correctional centers. However, this is not the case in the rural areas like Kano. There are a number of cases that do not need to enter the criminal justice system, therefore IWEI paralegals intervene and try to mediate these cases ultimately contributing to decongestion in the prisons.
Similarly, in Ghana, the POS Foundation provides access to justice for remandees in prisons. Upon discovery that many of the remandees were in prison due to ignorance of the law, did not have access to lawyers and did not know how to navigate the justice system, POS designed this program that not only solves the dilemma between crime control and due process, but also contributes to the much-needed decongestion of prisons in Ghana.
Namati in Sierra Leone mainly focuses on land and environmental justice (LEJ). After the war, building back the economy was a great focus for Sierra Leone. With this came the entry of multinational companies that most of the time took advantage of poor landowners based in the provinces and who could not afford lawyers to help them protect their rights while negotiating with big multi-billionaire investors. In addition, most of the lawyers were based in the capital. As a result, there were quite a number of human rights violations linked to land negotiations and environmental justice taking place. These violations included landowners not being consulted, multinational companies refusing to pay for crops they found on land they had leased, yet this was the agreement. There were no organizations working on LEJ as this was seen as an area for lawyers only.
The thematic focus of Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI) is informed by the types of cases they receive from the urban communities they serve in Nigeria and Benin. The focus is not really the type of case, rather where in handling certain cases can JEI have the greatest impact? Many small cases of a particular issue become the entry point for strategic advocacy and litigation. JEI focuses on working with the most vulnerable, not necessarily only those living in poverty, but those that have lower levels of education, low literacy levels and minority groups.
2. Thematic focus of organizations are flexible and may evolve over time
Even if organizations have identified a thematic focus to work on , these are not rigid and may evolve or expand with time. POS Foundation began by focusing their interventions on remandees only. But with time expanded their program to convicts with professional backgrounds known as ‘brains behind bars’ and prison wardens. This group has been trained as paralegals to assist convicts who have suffered a miscarriage of justice.
Because this work is largely community driven, types of cases will evolve as priorities and challenges of communities evolve. JEI feels that it is more about process than it is about strict parameters (thematic focus). For JEI if a case does not fit within their flexible focus buckets- the matter is brought to the next paralegal meeting, discussed with a staff attorney and a collective decision is made on what to do with the case.
Despite their thematic focus, the majority of the organizations in this exchange will still document all cases, both civil and criminal. Those that fall outside their scope are referred to government institutions or civil society organizations with the capacity to handle such matters. The accessibility of community paralegals means that they are indeed the first responders for many justice matters at grassroots level- their willingness to be flexible and give a listening ear goes a long way in cementing their standing and building more trust within the community.
The thematic areas of IWEI have evolved over time. In 2010, the first Gender Based Violence case IWEI handled was that of a girl who had suffered multiple violations. They intervened in this matter and had no idea at the time that what they were doing was legal empowerment. After some training, they established a new thematic area focused on legal aid, legal empowerment and access to justice.
Namati Sierra Leone’s paralegal program was started to address a wide range of justice issues and all sorts of violations. They later noticed a gap in LEJ which consequently became their main theme. Their focus has now slowly expanded to community land protection after realizing that most landowners do not even know the size of their land and this has led to many justice problems.
Similar to Namati Sierra Leone in its nascent stages, Delta Human Rights in Liberia which is barely a year old at the time of this exchange, documents general human rights violations. However, from the cases they receive they see a pattern in SGBV and this may inform their thematic focus in the future.
3. Home is where we realise change
All the organizations in this conversation work in rural areas save for JEI’s focus that is intently urban. The geographic focus for paralegal programs hardly expands; impact is realized more at home where they work, reside and are familiar with their dynamic contexts.
4. Legal empowerment is the strategy
All organizations use legal empowerment as a strategy; realizing that access to justice is not just about logistical issues like distance to the court or access to lawyers. Injustice thrives on unique forces of systemic and systematic exclusion; there exists a real power imbalance and the work is to address this - not just solving disputes.
A common approach by the organizations is to first document the violation or justice challenge that has been brought to their attention; in most cases using a case intake form. For the young Delta Human Rights team, a lot of their efforts are spent on understanding and better designing their case management system and improving documentation. This is a very important step in determining which legal empowerment strategy should be employed to deal with the justice challenge. Legal advice, mediation, legal education, advocacy, mobilization, community outreach, monitoring are methods commonly used by organizations.
Whatever legal empowerment strategy is being used, it has to make sense to the targeted communities. For sometime LEWAF would go to marketplaces in Sierra Leone, hand out materials on gender related laws and use a speaker to address people at the marketplace on their rights. After conducting a survey to find out what people had learned, the results were not too pleasing. No learning had taken place, people were busy going about their business and hardly paid attention. LEWAF changed strategy. They decided to work with a structured group of women who met once a week to discuss their loans and savings activities; the attendance rate at these meetings was at 95%. LEWAF used this forum for constructive learning on gender laws. For the wider community, LEWAF developed a 100 paged pictograph on the gender laws and displayed this at a community art exhibition. Another survey was conducted to see if learning had taken place, the feedback was astounding. LEWAF’s approach has been heralded as an innovative justice approach by local leaders and actors.
For POS, 70-80% of the work is done by paralegals who are able to draft court documents which are then forwarded to an advocate for further action. This program began in 2007 when the prison congestion rate was 33%. As of September 2020, the congestion rate is 12.34%. The success is owed partly to the legal empowerment approach used, but also due to the strategic linkages made with state institutions that have been cooperative in the implementation of this project.
Namati Sierra Leone’s approach is founded on 3 key principles of Legal empowerment : Know Law, Use law and Shape Law
Namati does not solve the problem for the communities, rather they work together to compare legal instruments, collect evidence and strategize together. Collective action is encouraged. Namati works with people not for people. In using and shaping the law, their experience has been to use the learnings from community work to shape policy at national level. Communities have their own unique ways of solving disputes which can work at national level- but would perhaps need some (legal) input. The process respects local knowledge in looking for legal solutions. Similarly, for POS foundation, lessons learned in working with remandees have been used to develop a Community Service Bill and Alternative Sentencing Policy.
Learning exchanges are at the core of JEI’s legal empowerment journey because according to them, learning rarely happens within a classroom setting. These exchanges happen between JEI paralegals who share strategies for cases, between paralegals and communities, between paralegals and authorities and between JEI paralegals and other paralegals from other organizations. This work is very hard. It is important for paralegals to know that they are part of something bigger and that their counterparts face similar problems.
Ali Kaba, a legal practitioner in Liberia, used the ‘name and shame’ strategy to push for reforms in the land and natural resources sector. This meant working with communities, mobilizing, establishing strategic networks and most importantly, encouraging agency. From observation, communities that had paralegal support retained knowledge and did well in interacting with various actors and advocating for their rights.
One setback of the legal empowerment approach has been that few community members, who have been legally empowered are willing to take up leadership and action on their own issues. And in the few instances where active members have stepped up, they are faced with threats. This means that paralegal support organizations continue to play a role at the frontline as communities, slowly but surely continue to step up and tap into their agency.
See you at the next virtual exchange!