A new manual for paralegals working in Sierra Leone has just been published by Timap for Justice, a legal empowerment group supported by the Open Society Foundations. Here, Timap’s co-founders reflect on how the manual came about, and the role they believe community-based paralegals can play in a country still recovering from years of civil war. The article first appeared on Sierra Express Media.
Timap began with a question.
Scholars and citizens agreed that maladministration of justice and arbitrariness in governance were among the root causes of Sierra Leone’s civil war. In envisioning a fairer Sierra Leone, one that would never revert to conflict, several human rights organizations identified in 2003 the need to do something to assist Sierra Leoneans when they faced injustice in their daily lives.
But what, given Sierra Leone’s distinctive context—its plural legal system, its small and concentrated supply of lawyers, its social institutions weakened after 11 years of war—should such assistance look like?
With time, Timap has experimented towards an answer: a frontline of community paralegals, supervised and supported by lawyers.
Timap’s paralegals employ a range of tools—mediation, advocacy, organizing, education—to assist Sierra Leoneans in pursuing concrete solutions to instances of injustice. Timap straddles the dualist legal system, engaging both customary and formal institutions depending on the needs of a given case.
A World Bank assessment found that Timap paralegals often manage to win incremental victories for justice: stop a school master from beating children; negotiate child support payments from a derelict father; persuade the water authority to repair a well. In exceptionally intractable cases, as when a mining company in the southern province damaged six villages’ land and abandoned the region without paying compensation, a tiny corps of lawyers can resort to litigation and higher-level advocacy to obtain a remedy.
We made this road by walking. When we began, we had no recipe for what a Sierra Leonean paralegal should know, or how paralegals could manage to address any of the myriad and complex injustices that Sierra Leoneans face. Our methodology evolved from the persistent trial and error of our staff, and the courage and insight of the communities with whom we work.
The new manual is an expression of what we have learned. It offers guidance on three things: basic law, including crime, contract, and tort; paralegal skills, including mediation, advocacy, and community education; and government policy and procedure, in areas like agriculture, mining, and healthcare.
We hope it will be a useful resource, for paralegals of course but also for any engaged citizen. We consider the manual to be a living document. We will continue to revise it as the law changes and as we learn more about what methods are most effective.
Since 2010 we have worked with partners—Access to Justice Project, BRAC, Justice and Peace Commission, Methodist Church, Namati, Open Society Justice Initiative—to expand the reach of independent justice services. Altogether our paralegals are serving approximately 40% of the population, with common standards for training, supervision, data collection, and evaluation. Our goal is that all Sierra Leoneans will have access to the services of community paralegals, and that those paralegals will be supported in turn by a corps of public interest lawyers.
Our coalition and many others advocated for the landmark legal aid law that passed in May. The law embraces the vision we have been working towards—it recognizes community paralegals as providers of justice services and calls for a paralegal office in every chiefdom. The law mandates the creation of a public, independent legal aid board that will among other things set standards for what constitutes a paralegal. The manual should help with exactly that question: it represents, in our view, the canon of knowledge and skills a Sierra Leonean community paralegal should possess.
We invite you to join us in building a system of justice services that is practical, flexible, and tailored to Sierra Leone. We believe such a system will be a significant step towards a more equal, more perfect republic.