The Paralegal Effect: A Conversation with Photographer Aubrey Wade

If it happens that you get arrested in Bo, Sierra Leone's bustling second city, chances are you'll wind up at the Central Police Station. At the ramshackle compound on the outskirts of town, you'll probably find yourself locked up in a crowded holding cell, waiting—sometimes for days on end—for word about your case. If you’re lucky, that’s where Baindu Koroma will find you.

Baindu is a paralegal. She’s part of a special pilot criminal justice program started by Timap for Justice, which runs a network of community-based paralegals to provide basic legal services across the country. In Sierra Leone, where the long civil war left the country with very few lawyers, paralegals have proven essential mediators between ordinary people and the country’s notoriously rickety justice system.

As part of its commitment to grassroots justice work—call it “legal empowerment”—the Open Society Justice Initiative commissioned photographer Aubrey Wade to document the impact  paralegals are having on the ground. Aubrey, who had previously worked with the Justice Initiative on statelessness in Mauritania, spent several days shadowing Baindu to see her work first hand. We asked him to talk about the experience.

You’ve been working in Sierra Leone since 2004, documenting the lives of young men after the war, including former combatants. So, before meeting up with Baindu, you’d already seen your fair share of Sierra Leone’s jails and prisons. I’m interested in how you approached this assignment.

It was really interesting to arrive at the point of working with Timap and with Baindu because so many of the young men I’ve known and worked with over the years have been in and out of prison. They have this expression—they talk about living with one foot in freedom and one foot in prison. And there’s a sense that there’s a certain inevitibility about it, that as young men without financial resources or friends in high places they will fall victim, at some point or another, to the power imbalance inherent in the way the justice system presently operates. Their perspective of the system is very much bottom-up so it was interesting to document an approach to tackling this imbalance of power that isn’t top-down.

On a creative level, as always with photography, you’re looking for characters and details that will bring a story and an issue to life for people. A paralegal’s work involves continually negotiating relationships with people within the system who can have an ambivalent attitude towards her work because, although they may agree with what she does in principle, it can also make things more complicated for them at times, too. So, that’s a really interesting dynamic to explore. And in this case we were lucky to see a case play out in real time.

Right. So, let’s set the scene. This is a story grounded in the everyday drama that plays out in holding cells all over the country. Give me a sense of what it means to find yourself locked up in a place like Bo’s Central Police Sation.

If you’re sitting in that cell, you’re basically faced with a lot of uncertainty. There’s a sense that the justice system is a game that doesn’t have regular rules. You can’t be certain that procedure is going to be followed. There’s no sense that, if you’re innocent, you can feel confident that within a given amount of time it will all come to light and you’ll walk away. Instead, you’re at the whim and mercy of the people you encounter—whether the investigating officer takes pity on you, whether he knows your mother, or how much money you have in your pocket. And things can get worse quickly. If you’ve been picked up and no one knows you’re there, then you’re looking at potentially spending time in prison. Because what usually happens is that if you do get processed to court, your case will be immediately adjourned, and you’ll be sent to the prison until your case comes up. And that can take a very long time. So, the feeling in those holding cells is often quite bleak.

So, into this alarmingly arbitrary system, steps a paralegal.

Right. Paralegals bring a sense that the game has rules and that the rules are designed to deliver fairness—that they aren’t stacked in favor of the police or the plaintiff, but are there to protect everyone and to facilitate the functioning of justice to everyone’s benefit. The paralegal’s role is to keep advocating that the system does what it’s supposed to do—play by the rules.

So, let’s talk about your time with Baindu. Describe her role at the police station.

We get to the police station and she greets all the police officers. It’s very clear that she knows everybody and everyone is very familiar and comfortable with her. After we arrive, she begins a slow process of talking to everyone detained in the police cells to ascertain who they are, where they’re from, why they’ve been detained, how long they’ve been there, whether or not they’ve been able to contact any of their relatives, and so on. You’d see that some people who hadn’t spoken to her before would be very wary about speaking to her, because they didn’t really understand her role. But that tended to change once they saw others opening up to her and then subsequently being afforded rights.

On the day you were there, it had been a few days since Baindu had come around, right? And there was a backlog of people in the holding cell?

That’s right. So, Baindu went up to the cell door and began talking to everyone, one by one. And then she’d make phone calls, contact relatives, follow up with police officers to see what the deal was in a given case—because oftentimes, she freely admits, people will tell her tall tales, that they’re completely innocent when in fact they’re not. And it’s part of her job to get people to the point where they realize that telling her the truth is in their interest. That she’s not there to get them off the hook, but to see that due process is followed.

That seems a crucial point—that the key task for a paralegal is to be an advocate not only for individual detainees, but for the principle of due process.

No question. There are laws in Sierra Leone, there are standard processes. There is, in principle, the rule of law. And one of the major roles that Baindu serves, particularly at the police station, is to ensure that people are treated accordingly. She often says that, in the beginning, it took her a while to negotiate her position with the police in particular, because she was accused of taking the side of people who had committed crimes. But she was able to successfully argue that by unpholding the rule of law, by ensuring that everybody was treated according to the rules, by building a more open and transparent system, that you’d benefit everybody – not just the individuals in custody but the police, too, who’d be able to get on doing their jobs.

That sounds like an argument you don’t win all at once.

No, she basically has to continually negotiate her neutrality—the sense that she is there to facilitate the functioning of the system, rather than taking the side of one person against another person. But she can point to real benefits. One of the issues that the police and prisons face constantly is over-crowding. By ensuring that people are processed according to the law and granted bail where appropriate—or released without charge where appropriate—this frees up the system. It frees up police time, police resources, prison space, all those sorts of things. It also helps the police to achieve a better image in the community, building trust, and reinforcing the idea that they’re fair.

Let’s talk about Mr. Morgan. Tell me how you came across him and about his case.

So, we’d been there about an hour and a half when we met Mr. Morgan. He was an older gentleman, calm and quiet and soft-spoken. And as he began to explain his story it became clear he was being held without charge. Basically, Mr. Morgan was being held for a crime that had allegedly been committed by his son—the theft of a fairly large sum of money from another family member. They were holding Mr. Morgan to put pressure on the family to bring the son in. The police understood that they didn’t have a case to bring against Mr. Morgan. By the time we found him, he’d been there two days.

Is this common police practice? To arrest relatives as leverage against a suspect?

It’s not that unusual, in fact, because the police officers investigating cases like these—through no fault of their own—have very few resources. To go out and track down the son would mean arranging transport, paying for petrol, likely all out of their own pocket. So they resort to tactics that they feel might work. So, there he was. Mr. Morgan in a holding cell, basically indefinitely.

I’m struck that Mr. Morgan’s case seems exceptional but is also totally ordinary and emblematic of the larger problems. Like everyone else, he was caught up in the limbo of an arbitrary system. How did Baindu approach his case?

Well, it was clear that Mr. Morgan needed to either be charged or released. There are statutory limits to how long you can be detained without charge in Sierra Leone. So Baindu confronted one of the arresting officers, who protested that she was interfering with police work. And Baindu held her ground, saying, “Absolutely not. You have to charge him or you have to let him go.” She then went to the senior officer on the case and had a discussion with him and reviewed the case notes to make sure that everyone was on the same page. Then she went and spoke to the family members, some of whom had come to the police station to lobby for Mr. Morgan’s release. She advised them to come back the following morning, because the police eventually agreed that they would release him by the morning.

Which he was.

Mr. Morgan was actually released that evening. And there’s no question that had Baindu not done all the ground work, the police would have refused to let him go. That was quite clear.

It’s remarkable because, beyond her powers of persuasion, Baindu actually has no real power in this situation. She’s a paralegal. And there’s no higher authority to bring in who can beat the police into compliance.

Baindu is backed up by Timap and there’s the possibility of calling on a full-fledged lawyer to weigh in on a case. But, in most situations, all she can really do is politely and consistently ask that the police adhere to the law as it’s written—that they adhere to the rules. It’s often a murky situation but that’s the nature of the justice system in Sierra Leone. It’s very murky and very gray, all of the time. That’s why paralegals play such an interesting and potentially useful role. To negotiate a way through the murkiness and to be a voice of reason and clarity, to be a constant presence and reminder that due process exists for a reason. And there’s a sense that it works, and works very well—that the worst excesses of the system are curbed by the presence of paralegals like Baindu.

More on legal empowerment, including more country stories, is available on the website of Namati, an Open Society partner that is coordinating grassroots justice initiatives worldwide.

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