Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Community-Based Paralegal in the Dispensation of Justice to the Poor

The Community-Based Paralegal in the Dispensation of Justice to the Poor
No doubt, justice is critical to peace. A society that treats the dispensation of justice to its members with levity effectively sits on a tinderbox. Justice, of whatever shade, delivered and seen to be delivered builds confidence amongst the citizenry and makes it want to take part in the task of nation building. The absence of justice, on the other hand, sends citizens into sectarian trenches and what we see in Nigeria today is largely attributable to the absence of a regime of justice, equity and the rule of law.
The inability of common people to access justice in a society like ours, barring the tortuous legal system with all its imperfections, largely lies in two provinces, namely, ignorance and poverty. Leadership in Nigeria and the system generally have appeared to have taken undue advantage of these factors to exploit the populace instead of recognising the sacredness of their domain to uplift society; such would be, by educating the generality of the people on their basic rights and supporting them to be able to access justice at little or no cost.
The extant organ of state, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON), has been at this lately in a manner as never before, through her project, Access to Justice for the Poor. Apart from sensitizing and training community gatekeepers to be part of quest to dispense justice to the indigent, selected individuals are being trained as community-based paralegals to support the process.
The UK Institute of Paralegals defines the paralegal as “a person who qualifies through education and training to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of the law and procedures and who is not a qualified solicitor or barrister”. In 1984, the US National Association of Legal Assistants defined Legal Assistants (Paralegals) as “a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training, and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney”. The paralegals, though not qualified lawyers, require working knowledge of the law and all the works to be effective and efficient in their duties. They cannot take the place of lawyers but they work diligently behind the scenes for lawyers, carrying out the task they have been assigned in various roles.
Within the context of giving the poor access to justice in Nigeria, Adhinc Integrated Services ltd., a professional study centre in Nigeria, submits that the paralegal plays the major role of a community support worker. Such a person will be working with disadvantaged groups in the community, most of whom are poor, rural based and with little or no education. Such band of paralegals, being raised at community levels under this project, will have a duty to empower their service users by providing them with information, such as the fact that they do have recourse to the law. The service users then become confident and are able to approach the police and the law courts as well as seek legal advice as a matter of right. The paralegals become signposts to direct clients not only to lawyers, but also to a myriad of agencies, organisations and NGOs that will give them the necessary assistance to resolve their problems.
These paralegals will also serve to support lawyers in the provision of legal aid by taking detailed notes, interviewing and investigating the facts in a matter, accompanying parties to court to offer moral support, as well as making sure that parties know what is expected of them if they do have to go to court. They are a people whose integrity must be above board if folks in communities must trust and confide in them.
The Access to Justice for the Poor Project, as stated earlier, also works with and through community gatekeepers such as traditional and religious leader, some of whom have undergone training in best practices in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) at which they were exposed to the fundamental rights of individuals and skills in managing people. This is in a bid to strengthen their capacity as trusted arbitrators amongst their subjects and be seen to be fair in their interventions. The aim is that these gatekeepers are able to handle matters that are civil in nature, thereby preventing such from getting to the police who turn such matters criminal and get courts to keep persons needlessly in prison custody without trial. With the help, also, of its legal clinics, the project is able to offer free legal services  to persons in need by way of advice and representation where the need arises.
In the light of the enormity of work before it in provision of free legal services in general to Nigerians, the LACON is rather lean and could do with many more community based structures to support it in the delivery of its mandate. Moreover, this particular scheme ongoing in Kaduna State is a World Bank project supported by the Japanese government. There appears a yawning need for the federal government to allocate more funds to expand such a scheme and across many more states of the federation. State governments too must commit to supporting, at least within their respective states, the work of the LACON in the dispensation of justice especially to the poor. Government at all levels needs to cut down on the number of disgruntled persons in the society as a result failure of, miscarriage of, and snail-speed justice. Corporate organisations, private and public, local and multinational, should also begin to partner such agencies as the LACON in the provision of free legal services and to see supporting such schemes as raising an army of paralegals at the community level to support in providing access to justice for the indigent as a corporate social responsibility, capable of going a long way in creating a more stable environment for the smooth-running of their businesses.

(Published on BLUEPRINT Newspaper, Thursday Nov 21, 2013)

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