Training of community based paralegals is a key component to realizing grassroots justice- and making the law accessible to millions of people who still do not enjoy its protection. In this 2nd virtual round table conversation organizations from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia discussed the various paralegal training and supervision methods practiced in the region.
The duration of training differs from organization to organization and is adapted to context. Some organizations intensively train paralegals for 6 months after which they are awarded certificates whereas some adopt a series of short trainings that run for 3-5 days followed by a longer training. For these organizations, short trainings are not only dynamic but allow for the trainees to apply what has been learned.
No matter the duration, organizations combine both classroom and on the job/field training. It is important for paralegals to understand the law and also get time to internalize it.
For effective classroom training, paralegals should have access to relevant, up to date laws and policies that are useful in their work. E.g. for paralegals who work on land and environmental justice, it is important that they have copies of lease agreements , environmental impact assessments etc. In addition, these laws should be simplified making it easy for paralegals to make reference to them.
Classroom training also allows for scenario setting in which a certain legal issue or challenge is brought to life providing opportunity for participants to exchange ideas, discuss the legal issue at length and see what possible solutions may be arrived at.
Pre- and post-tests are issued to test knowledge and see how much paralegals understand the training content. Some organizations also have daily quizzes to keep the paralegals on their toes. Ahead of the trainings, daily learning outcomes are also shared with the participants.
Involving resource persons from target institutions such as legal aid boards, the police or government pathologist to facilitate trainings has proven to be a useful strategy to not only establish linkages but for paralegals to understand how government bureaucracy works and how, in certain circumstances, they can constructively work with state institutions to promote access to justice. In Liberia, Accountability Lab engages the police and courts in their training. Consequently, cases they refer to the police are picked up and acted upon quickly. JEI in Nigeria partners with the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria during training so that the state officials get an opportunity to listen to the paralegals, hear about their work and see how the training is being conducted. In a context where paralegals continue to fight for state recognition, taking paralegal discussions right to the doorstep of authorities is one way to push for formal recognition.
In Sierra Leone, the law requires that paralegals go through a formal training before being recognized as such. Civil society Organizations that have been training paralegals work to support the Legal Aid Board by co-developing training manuals. The experience gained from years of training and strategically partnering with state institutions- can realize some great wins for the field:
CSO’s in both Nigeria and Sierra Leone developed training curricula and code of conduct for paralegals that have been adopted and validated by their respective Legal Aid Boards.
Despite these wins, civil society organizations insist that there is need for more state support in the training of paralegals. In Sierra Leone, the CAJPHR has established the only accredited institution to train paralegals. However, rolling out paralegal training at both district and national level is a daunting task for civil society. The state needs to step in and commit financially to the training of paralegals.
Are Paralegal Training Models Elitist/Inclusive?
Concerns have been raised that the paralegal training models seem to focus on academic rigor - which is appreciated and useful but which may not promote inclusivity. Acknowledging that we come from different contexts, access to education has been largely a systemic challenge for many African countries. There are many communities that are yet to enjoy their right to formal education - this should not disqualify them from being paralegals. Knowledge of one’s community, ability to navigate dynamics and how to solve conflict at the grassroots level is a very important skill set for a community based paralegal.
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.
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. IWEI therefore conducts very basic training and conducts oral tests and quizzes for their paralegals in the local languages.
IWEI still faces challenges in getting women to be trained as paralegals. Some trained women have had to drop out because their husbands do not want them to go to the police stations to follow up on matters. In some cases, where men do not want women to address them, the trained women paralegals are accompanied by their husbands to attend to matters. This is the lived reality of training women in rural patriarchal communities.
Training models should be flexible; adapted to the different contexts so that ‘we leave no one behind’ in trying to make justice accessible. Models should be able to cater to the different training needs and backgrounds of paralegals- acknowledging that community based paralegals are not a homogenous group - some have had the benefit of formal education, some may be barely literate, others may want to be paralegals but are faced with navigating patriarchal roadblocks. Our north star is to democratize the law; make it accessible to people in a form that they understand and can use. Further, communities were already mediating their matters and solving their own conflicts before the concept of paralegalism was introduced. As legal empowerment organizations, we come in to build on what has already been done, we add on certain skill sets, and align the practices to human rights standards. We make the training suit the community.
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. @aminahanga - IWEI
JEI’s inclusivity approach is deliberate. 50% of training slots are reserved for women, and all paralegal trainees must live in ‘poorer’ communities (urban slums and informal settlements), ethnic minorities and communities that have been traditionally marginalized.
What Happens after Training?
Field training is interpreted as “on the job training” - which by design is a continuous learning process. Paralegals who encounter challenging matters on the ground have access to advocates, lawyers or senior paralegals who play the role of supervisor and are able to advise and give further guidance. The relationship between supervisors and paralegals should be interactive, engaging and allow for different perspectives.
“Part of supervision means learning about the paralegals unique perspective in handling cases. They (paralegals) are constantly in the field, supporting communities with their own justice issues” @FatmataKanu - Program Officer, Namati-Sierra Leone
Supervision is mostly in person where the supervisor travels to meet with the paralegals to look at the case files and conduct an in depth analysis of the cases. During the COVID-19 pandemic, supervision has taken a digital face where discussions take place through phone calls and WhatsApp. It is important to note that for remote areas, digital supervision was in use, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Namati - Sierra Leone uses Salesforce - a cloud based software in which a supervisor can easily access files and details of the case discussed anywhere.
In addition to supervision, organizations support their paralegals by facilitating their movement, communication with clients and organizing peer to peer learning exchanges. LEWAF provides their paralegals with motorbikes and sufficient airtime, resource materials on the various laws and relationship building with authorities. This has led to police stations and magistrate courts referring cases to LEWAF paralegals for intervention. IWEI provides their paralegals with tools for documentation such as android phones and forms that correspond to the literacy levels of the paralegals.
In discussing support for paralegals, we should consider psychological support. This work is hard, the cases can be traumatizing. A point reaches in this work that you feel so stressed, and you do not know where to offload your feelings especially when you keep receiving negative cases.
Organizations agree that psychological support for ourselves and paralegals is something that we do not do well enough. We need to be more deliberate in supporting the mental well-being of paralegals.
What are your training and supervision methods?
You can find IWEI’s detailed training model here. Please feel free to share yours as well