A Powerful tool of Justice: Paralegals and the provision of affordable and accessible legal services
In many parts of Africa, a quiet revolution is transforming the delivery of legal assistance to pre-trial detainees and accused persons. Too poor to afford the services of a lawyer, and unable to rely on inadequate – or nonexistent – state-funded legal aid systems, many Africans are at the mercy of often oppressive and corrupt criminal justice systems. This is beginning to change as paralegals – who are less expensive and more accessible than lawyers – are empowering the poor and marginalised in their interactions with police, prosecutors, and the courts. In almost two dozen countries across Africa, paralegals are providing a critical service, particularly in the early stages of the criminal justice process. They provide primary legal aid services that often no one else is providing, which in turn results in the elimination of unnecessary pre-trial detention, the speedy processing of cases, diversion of young offenders, and reduction of case backlogs. Some paralegal services also provide food and medical supplies to people in detention. They may also be present at police stations in order to deter ill-treatment and forced confessions. Paralegals play a valuable role in reducing prison overcrowding by locating the family members of pre-trial detainees and facilitating bail hearings. This article gives an overview of paralegal services in a number of African countries, and shows how these services are assisting thousands of pretrial detainees and accused persons to access justice in environments where legal services are scarce or non-existent.