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Justice in Africa: Poor law

The rise of paralegals
GODFREY EBREYU has a captive audience, in every sense. A throng of inmates has gathered in the prison yard in Gulu, northern Uganda, as he explains the intricacies of plea-bargaining. Like 55% of prisoners in Uganda, these men are awaiting trial; some have been here for years. They are still asking questions when, at four o’clock, they are ushered back into their crowded cells for the night.

Mr Ebreyu is a paralegal working for the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, a Ugandan NGO. Paralegals have some legal training, but they are not lawyers. Across Africa they are helping to unclog courts, resolve disputes and bring justice to the most vulnerable, from suspects deprived of their liberty to farmers robbed of their lands. Some are paid, others are volunteers; they typically work for civil-society groups and tend to be locals.

Their work is desperately needed. Africa’s people are mostly rural and poor; its fully qualified lawyers are mostly urban and expensive. In Uganda just one in a hundred disputes ever reaches a lawyer. When the civil war ended in Sierra Leone, the country’s legal fraternity could have fitted in a couple of buses. In Malawi, murder trials were suspended in April this year because the legal-aid board couldn’t afford defence lawyers; it has just nine of its own, and four of those are studying abroad.

Paralegals cannot take the place of lawyers in court. But legal representation is “the tip of the iceberg”, says Clifford Msiska, who runs the Paralegal Advisory Service in Malawi. His workers teach those on remand how to ask for bail. They sift cases, alerting the courts when someone has been held beyond the legal limit. They track down relatives to stand surety, and push for children to be diverted into rehabilitation programmes instead of prison.

Criminal justice is just the start. In many places paralegals mediate in civil disputes, such as arguments over land, reducing pressure on formal courts. That can create tensions with traditional leaders, who play a similar role (and often charge for it). Mechanisms such as community-oversight boards can reassure local big shots. Keeping the chiefs onside gives paralegals space to nudge customary law in more progressive directions, giving a bigger voice to women and the young.

Paralegals are particularly important in societies under stress. “Most prisoners are here as a result of land wrangles,” says Aceng Jolly, a paralegal in Gulu, where land disputes have intensified as people return to villages abandoned in war: it only takes a flying fist or a false accusation to turn a civil issue into a criminal one. South African paralegals trace their origins to the anti-apartheid struggle. Sierra Leone’s landmark legal-aid law, which promises paralegals in every chiefdom, was in part a response to the injustices which stoked a brutal civil war.

Even where states function well, they need to be held accountable. Paralegals increasingly guide people through complex bureaucracies or demand that promises are kept. In Kenya, they help stateless Nubians acquire citizenship. In Mozambique they secure access to anti-retroviral drugs for people with HIV. The Community Law and Rural Development Centre, which runs paralegal offices in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, recovered 4.3m rand ($300,000) last year from unpaid state benefits and the like.

Paying for all this is hard. Most paralegals are funded by foreign donors; this can mean that programmes are cut back when fashions change. One South African advice centre finances itself through a recycling business. Barefoot Law, a Ugandan non-profit run by volunteer lawyers, uses phones and social media to reach people cheaply. In Sierra Leone, a new land policy requires investors to pay into a fund supporting local paralegals (who help resolve land disputes, among other things). Lotta Teale of Open Society Foundations, a charity that promotes better governance, wants donors to set up endowments to pay for paralegals over the long term, though obviously this would be expensive.

Only a few countries recognise paralegals in law. Bar associations can be sniffy, pointing out that some paralegals take only a two-week crash course before being thrust into the field (though others train for two years). Organisations that employ paralegals could do more to monitor standards and maintain databases of cases.

The challenge is to become more professional while retaining the grassroots ethos. The best paralegals teach people to solve problems themselves, says Vivek Maru of Namati, an international legal network. Take Boxton Kudziwe, a mobile-phone salesman in Malawi. He was charged in 2006 with murder and spent seven years in prison awaiting trial, only to be found not guilty. Today he works as a paralegal, using his experience to help others get bail. “Then I was ignorant,” he says, recalling his arrest. No longer.


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