Across Africa, a movement calling for stronger national legal aid policies is gaining ground. Legal aid legislation, aimed at assisting those who cannot afford lawyers, is being developed or rolled out in several countries, including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa.
A notable few —Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania—are approaching the challenge holistically. These governments are considering a broad range of service providers within their legal aid schemes, looking to community paralegals in addition to lawyers. Community paralegals are non-lawyers trained in the workings of law and government, as well as in skills like mediation and advocacy. They use their knowledge to seek out practical solutions to instances of injustice. Across the continent, paralegals are helping people to demand and exercise their rights, overcoming common obstacles like cost, lack of awareness, corruption, discrimination, or distance.
Last month, over fifty paralegal organizations from twenty African countries convened at a regional meeting in Uganda. Together, they issued the Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals. The statement urges governments to embrace the potential of community paralegals in three ways—by recognizing their contributions to justice and accountability, investing in the scale-up of paralegal efforts, and protecting the independence of paralegals. The declaration remains open for further signatures.
Against this background, it is regrettable that the latest version of South Africa’s new Legal Practice Bill fails to recognize a formal role for community paralegals. This stance is particularly troubling, given that South Africa is considered the birthplace of paralegals. As far back as the 1950s, paralegals supported black South Africans in efforts to navigate and resist the codes of apartheid.
In this moving audio piece, Seth Mnguni, spokesman for South Africa’s National Task Team on Community-Based Paralegals (NTT) and a long-time paralegal himself, describes the history of the South African paralegal movement and his vision for the future of the profession.
Together with the National Alliance for Development of Community Advice Offices (NADCAO), NTT has prepared a joint submission to the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development, pushing for the inclusion of community paralegals in the Legal Practice Bill. NADCAO and NTT argue that the bill cannot achieve its objective of addressing massive gaps in legal access by relying exclusively on community service from lawyers.
As NADCAO and NTT note, paralegals are often closer to the communities they serve than the typical, city-based lawyer. They also employ a wider and more flexible set of tools. By virtue of their rights-based training, paralegals provide more than just legal services; they are oriented toward broader goals of community empowerment and development. Despite this, the Legal Practice Bill does not acknowledge paralegals as an integral part of South Africa’s legal aid system, nor does it provide them with adequate state support. In the end, this position critically undermines both the legitimacy and sustainability of paralegal efforts.
The submission deadline for comments on the Legal Practice Bill, originally July 27, has been extended. This delay provides a key opportunity for NADCAO and NTT to galvanize support for the inclusion of community paralegals in the legal framework of South Africa.
You can play a role in this effort. Pledge your support to NADCAO and NTT by signing their online petition. The more support they can show for their cause, the greater the chances South Africans will have to enjoy real and meaningful access to justice.