In Africa Paralegals Help Inmates Who Lack Legal Representation

The Economist summarized the perilous state of many African inmates who lack legal representation. With lawyers in short supply—and very expensive—paralegals help those incarcerated throughout Africa.

Many of the cases revolve around land ownership as Africans return from exile to their villages that had been abandoned during war. In South Africa, paralegals got their start during the anti-apartheid struggle. The landmark legal law in Sierra Leone arose in response to injustices which caused a brutal civil war.

While these paralegals cannot substitute for lawyers in court, they can train inmates on their basic rights such as how to ask for bail. Malawi’s Paralegal Advisory Service also alerts the courts when a prisoner has been held beyond the legal limit. In addition, they try to divert children into rehabilitation programs instead of prison.

Keeping legal authorities accountable is the goal in African countries that do function well:

  • Kenya: Paralegals help Nubians become citizens
  • Mozambique: They help people with HIV get antiviral drugs
  • South Africa: A center that runs paralegal offices recovered $300,000 from unpaid state benefits last year

However, paying for paralegal services in Africa is not trivial. Most get their funding from foreign donors. A major problem with this is that programs “are cut back when fashions change.”

Some paralegal groups find novel ways to fund themselves:

  • One South African center uses a recycling business to finance itself
  • A Ugandan non-profit called Barefoot Law run by volunteer lawyers uses social media and phones to reach people cheaply
  • In Sierra Leone, investors are mandated to pay into a fund that supports local paralegals as a result of a new land policy

One major problem with the use of paralegals in Africa is that only a few countries recognize them in law. Paralegals face the challenge of becoming more professional while keeping their grassroots ethics.