Last year (2020) I attended the National Dialogue for Community Paralegals organized by the Legal Aid Service Providers’ Network (LASPNET) in which I felt honored to share ideas with fellow practitioners driven by a currency of justice particularly for those that find it quite a daunting task to pursue justice. The dialogue came at the most opportune time especially given the fact that paralegals were operating in the most unprecedented times, with unique and unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has had the entire world religiously get down to its knees.
The theme of the dialogue was indeed carefully chosen for it matched the realities and dynamics of the current times that mirror the unique experiences that the entire fraternity of legal aid practitioners or service providers is confronted with. Because of the deficiency of space, I would like to quickly delve into the subject of my discussion today which is “Experiences, Challenges and Lessons Learnt as a Community Paralegal.” In this, I will present the unique experience of a paralegal from Namutumba district.
Before I share my experience, challenges and perhaps the lessons learnt as a community paralegal from Namutumba district, I find it important here to refresh ourselves with the meaning of who a paralegal is. Now I will keep it simple to avoid paying loyalty to scholarly confusion of the term.
Community paralegals are individuals who use knowledge of the law and skills like mediation, organizing education and advocacy to seek concrete solutions to instances of injustice1. Community paralegals are also known as “grassroots legal advocates” or “barefoot lawyers”, providing bridge between the law and the practical societal problems. Paralegals are trained and skilled in basic law like mediation, arbitration, advocacy and the entire alternative dispute resolution system. They form a dynamic, creative frontline and bridge between the law and real-life problems.
In light of that definition, it’s clear that we as paralegals fall within the broad framework of legal aid and social justice for grass root communities. As a paralegal I believe that I am a tool that fills the vacuum that is often created by the absence of formal legal services and structures within the community where I live.
Many people within the community, are weighed down with a double jeopardy of social injustices they face on the one side and their lack of capacity or ability to pursue the process of justice to address the injustices on the other side. As paralegals we present communities with a unique opportunity of salvation from such challenges particularly through helping them pursue the process of justice with confidence. As paralegals, we empower community members with knowledge of their basic inherent human rights especially in communities where people feel the very notion of human rights disintegrates the stereotypically built value systems. Take the case of domestic violence in the Namutumba, where power relations are assigned asymmetrically between men and women, men being in the most privileged position with powers that do not spare the rights of women. Through our advocacy communities are as well empowered to demand accountability from the state of the various national stewards in the country.
At the dialogue held at Mestil Hotel, I could see many faces with professional legal expressions or countenances, however what was disheartening was that these occupy the urban space leaving a lacuna in rural spaces where most injustices exist and where people have a thirst and hunger for justice that could be realized through their services. Paralegals bridge that gap by offering the basic knowledge and services for justice.
However, though as paralegals we offer such a unique opportunity like I have briefly highlighted, we are caught in chains of a number of challenges or obstacles that make it quite hard for us to deliver on our mandate of especially ensuring social justice in communities where we live. I will speak from my experience as a community paralegal from Namutumba district.
The biggest challenge that we perhaps face is that of funding. Personally, I am an independent paralegal in Namutumba attached to no organization but just moved by my profound passion for social justice ever since I graduated with a degree in Ethics and Human Rights. However, I have had challenges in meeting clients and victims of injustice partly because the distances I have to trek are quite long and even interfacing with the formal professional legal service that victims need requires some money. As an independent volunteer doing paralegal work, it becomes a challenge in helping people in the community pursue justice. The occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated response measures including the lockdowns created an added layer of complexity on the challenge of funding since I could hardly reach a number of victims of injustice.
Community resistance to the activities of paralegals is yet another challenge that we as paralegals are confronted with. The work of paralegals with its underlying intention of helping communities achieve social justice and perhaps appreciate the notion of human rights, must be appreciated by the communities that we serve. In the event that community members do not appreciate the work of paralegals or let me say there is no community buy-in of the work of paralegals, it becomes challenging to do work which at times involves activism and advocacy. In my community in particular, I think this lack of community buy-in is at times due to the low literacy levels where people believe the idea of the law or that of human rights is something quite alien and does not directly apply to them. Even when you choose to voluntarily take on a case to see to it that victims of injustice get justice, there are chances of resistance from community members. If I may quote one of the statements that were made by an elderly man in a defilement case I had picked interest in. He said and I quote verbatim in Lusoga: “kano akalenzi kelaga, ndha kakola ekintu olundi lwakweta mubitakagema ku.” Loosely translated as “this boy can wise ache; I will do something to him one day for meddling in matters that do not concern him.” Now, honestly with such intimidations and value systems that make the environment of operation quite hostile, it makes it hard for us as paralegals to do our work.
Organizations in the communities we live in also do not have clear frameworks for coordination and support of paralegal work. Whereas it is true that as paralegals, we have knowledge of the communities where we live and serve; and as such know the victims of injustices and possible sources of injustice, we are at times let down by the lack of necessary support to pursue such cases. In most cases, it requires the necessary back up of the existing institutional framework to help us go about paralegal work which is in most cases part of their program areas. Support from institutions would perhaps be in form of trainings since we at times lack the capacity and also the trainings would help in increasing the number of paralegals. The fact that there are often very few paralegals in the community, most of us are often weighed down by the geographical scope that we have to cover.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the challenges that I have mentioned have in fact been compounded the more and their pinch could be felt. If I am to point out the trigger point for learning our lessons as paralegals, then the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic has heralded a robust process of reflection. We have had to pause and think what it is that we have to do right. A number of injustices have occurred within this period and I as a paralegal I have often been caught
in the double pressure of curiosity of knowing the injustices and prospective gain of helping the victims pursue justice with a great spirit to accomplish a shining success but however let down by the measures that were put in place to limit the spread of the corona virus. It has often been hard to reach victims during the last two lockdowns and the fact that people have been home and with poor surveillance and vigilance from community members, human rights abuses including gender-based violence have gone unnoticed or unreported.
I think the biggest lesson we learn from all this is that the capacity of paralegals has to be enhanced and the number increased through continuous training in advocacy and other basic legal procedures so that we can have wider impact and foot print in the communities we serve. With increased knowledge and skills and a bigger number of paralegals, I feel we shall have the desired confidence to even build the capacity of community members to confidently pursue justice. When we are fully empowered and our number increased, I believe we can build even more synergies in doing our work and also mitigate some of the challenges often faced.
There should be a mechanism undertaken by existing institutions in the legal aid framework of mapping, identifying, and coordinating of the various paralegals that exist in the communities both independent ones and those attached to organizations. This mechanism should as well be in position to foster communication, information sharing and sharing of best practices by the various paralegals in the communities. In the event that paralegals at times do not have the capacity to help victims of social injustice and crimes largely because of our lack of expert knowledge on procedural law, this leaves as with a big lesson of the need of perhaps a call center that we can call and have the basic knowledge on the procedures undertaken so as to guide the victims accordingly.
As I end, I would like to put across a simple thought which I beg shouldn’t be taken for mere rhetoric: How about if more dialogues were held not at just national level but even in the communities where we live, won’t the impact of community paralegals be felt the more and won’t justice find firm rooting in our communities??
Article written by Ivan Mugonero, a Community Based Paralegal in Namutumba District
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