Reflection on the paralegal concept in Nigeria and the way foward

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A paralegal is a person qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work customarily performed by a lawyer and which requires knowledge of legal concepts. They are not lawyers and so are under the constant supervision of lawyers to ensure they do not exceed their mandated limits. A paralegal may be retained or employed in a law office, governmental agency, non- governmental organisation or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work.

The original concept of paralegals started with the Attorneys Assistants of the United Kingdom, where paralegals may be found today, acting as assistants to fully qualified solicitors. Paralegals all over the world may offer legal advice, but of course a client 'wronged' by such an advice may have redress in a civil court for damages. Paralegals do not represent clients in court but they offer legal advice and alternative Dispute Resolution services and make referrals to lawyers in cases that need to be litigated.

The CIRDDOC Paralegal Scheme: Legal services are expensive and in some cases unaffordable. It is worse for people in the communities where poverty is prevalent and worst still for women who bear the brunt of poverty. Poverty is said to wear the face of a woman. To address this issue, increasingly NGOs and institutions including CIRDDOC are training paralegals at the community level to assist such people with legal aid. The CIRDDOC/HBF paralegal scheme has been supported by Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1999. The project is basically to enhance women's human rights in Nigeria. The activities within the project are training of paralegals, deployment of paralegals, establishment of legal aid clinics, provision of free legal and counselling services and production and distribution of simplified pamphlets on legal issues. The CIRDDOC Paralegal Training is usually a two- week intensive residential training programme of a maximum of 35 participants at a time, aimed at building a critical mass of legally literate persons able to provide free legal assistance to the indigent in the communities. It teaches participants the basic concepts of the law, and constant refresher courses are organised for trained paralegals.

The training is designed to demystify the law which is usually couched in highly technical and intimidating language. It equips non-lawyers with knowledge of the basic tenets of the law, the legal system, rights and duties to enable them to use the law and the courts effectively to enforce human rights. Some of the products from the project are deployed to provide legal services in the fifteen CIRDDOC Community Information Centres (CICs) and legal aid clinics located in three states - Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi states. Others operate from traditional rulers' palaces where they serve as Palace Secretaries, in churches as clergy and clergy’s wives and in community women's organisations providing "first aid" legal services. Their services are free of charge.

Under the CIRDDOC Legal Aid and Paralegal Scheme, over 2,000 cases have been handled and disposed of. CIRDDOC trained paralegals, about 49% of whom are women, are building a critical mass of legally empowered women to enforce women's rights at the community level. Community members where they work testify that they now know and understand their rights and make use of the legal aid clinics to enforce them. There is also evidence in some of the communities that there has been less involvement of police in community affairs, and that a decline in the rate of indiscriminate and illegal arrests and detentions has been noted. Community members are willing to challenge violations of human rights in court more than ever before and widows who were dispossessed of their family property have received legal aid to recover them. The benefits of the project are enormous.

CIRDDOC paralegals stand out because over the years they have been more empowered and their capacities have been built beyond the paralegal training. Some have undergone training on gender budgeting, civic education, Gender and HIV/AIDS, Violence against Women etc. They also serve in Budget Monitoring Committees in their communities.

Protecting Women’s Rights through the Paralegal Scheme: Although human rights aim to protect all human beings, male or female, in practice they have not been applied equally. Regardless of cultural particularities, religious tenets and levels of developments, women all over the world are entitled to enjoy human rights because one of its characteristics is that they are universal. Several factors militate against the enjoyment of women’s rights in Nigeria. They include discriminatory laws and policies, attitudes and customary practices, unequal power relations between women and men in the family etc. Religion and tradition are sometimes used as instruments of women’s oppression. Ignorance and illiteracy compound an already bad situation. Because women, particularly those in the grassroots who are mainly illiterate do not understand their rights, they allow, condone or even perpetrate obnoxious customary practices against their fellow women. Again, because justice is so distant as a result of poverty, lack of access and ignorance, they are not able to seek redress for abuse or violation of their rights.

The paralegal scheme does several things to address this situation. It trains women themselves to understand their rights, protect them and enforce them. They also step the training and knowledge down to members of their organizations and families. For the training, participants are selected from community women’s organizations, faith based organizations, retired teachers, civil servants, nurses etc. Out of the 99 paralegals trained in the project 47 of them (46.53%) are women. One of the CIRDDOC paralegals Mrs. Agbom Beatrice testified as follows in one of the evaluation meetings:

“Before I became a paralegal, I was a civic educator. I was promoted to be a paralegal because of my hard work in the CIC. I have been equipped and I know my rights and the law. Here are the pictures (showed pictures) of the August meeting in which I was called to be a resource person to teach women their rights”

Another paralegal, Lillian Nnachi stated how the paralegal training and experience changed her life:

“I was trained in 2005 because I was doing well as a Civic Educator. I have been recognised by our
Traditional Ruler and many cases are referred to me in the community. my church my pastor
recognises me. I was once called to give a lecture on gender in the church. After my lecture, the church committee that was made up of all men was disbanded and the committee became gender balanced with 3 men and 3 women. We organise awareness programmes on gender sensitivity for LG chairmen. Two women have been appointed supervisory councillors in my Local Government... We have handled many cases…”

On her own part, Mrs. Nkiru Nwobodo stated that

“Since I became a paralegal, I have gained boldness. I single-handedly initiated and facilitated a Bill on the anti stigma law against people living with HIV/AIDS to the State Assembly and it has become law in Enugu state. I could not have done that without the capacity building I received as a paralegal”

The scheme also brings justice to the door steps of the poor, vulnerable and marginalized who are mostly women. People they know and they can relate with are trained as paralegals and they live among them in the communities, offer free legal advice and point out the evils of customary practices they condone. The scheme bridges the gap between lawyers (who are usually based in towns and cities, can be very expensive and take a long time to conclude a case due to the prevailing court system in Nigeria) and the rural urban poor. The paralegal programme empowers non-lawyers and equips them with human rights, legal and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) skills. ADR has been found to be simple, time saving, less costly, empowering, and it enhances relationships. The training enables them to acquire communication and mobilisation skills as well.

Testimonies abound that show that over 1,000 women have found succour in the legal aid clinics by receiving assistance to get out of violent relationships or to recover property carted away by in laws. Services provided by paralegals include providing information to community members about their rights under the law, helping them to protect and enforce the rights, negotiating on their behalf if necessary, providing alternative dispute resolution services, and when necessary, contacting a lawyer to assist in resolving the case particularly where litigation is necessary.

In one of the cases, Catherine Okoli, a widow married under customary law and wedded in the Catholic Church was thrown out of the house by the adult sons of her late husband by a previous marriage. They claimed that she did not have a male issue and therefore was not entitled to their father’s estate under customary law. They claimed the right of ownership of their father’s compound. CIRDDOC mediated but they were adamant so the matter was filed in court on the widow’s behalf. CIRDDOC lawyers represented her and her daughters. Judgement was entered in their favour. The court ordered that they be reinstated in their home and awarded them N100, 000 (One Hundred Thousand Naira).

In another case, a husband had thrown his wife out of the matrimonial home and seized all her belongings. She did not have any children. Mediation failed so the paralegals referred the case to lawyers for litigation. The CIRDDOC pro bono lawyers filed for divorce. The marriage was dissolved as the man was no longer interested – he was actually living with another woman by this time. The husband was ordered to release her belongings and pay her damages of N300, 000 (Three Hundred Thousand Naira).

Paralegals are trained to use alternative methods of dispute resolution in their work and only revert to litigation when all other methods have failed. In a similar case as the one above, the CIRDDOC paralegals mediated in a case of a widow and her three daughters whose late husband’s economic trees and landed property were taken over by her in- laws on the ground that she had no sons. After explaining the legal position to them including the decision in Mojekwu v Mojekwu in which the Court of Appeal held that a female child had a right to inherit her father’s property, the family members agreed to return the seized property. The paralegals had several consultative sessions with family members and elders. Finally, they divided the family property and gave the widow and her daughters her husband’s share. The matter was resolved without litigation.

Furthermore, the paralegal programmes specifically focus on violation of human rights and women’s rights cases. The programme also seeks to provide legal education and assistance to women and girls.

Paralegals and Community Mobilisers: Our understanding at CIRDDOC of the position and role of the paralegal is a person who is able to provide ‘first aid’ legal services to community members who are far removed from lawyers, courts and justice. The Paralegal is one who is able to draft simple legal documents and agreements for parties in the communities. He or she is able to refer to the Paralegal
Handbook and advise a couple considering divorce or deal with the police on bail issues and on protection of rights issues etc. To achieve this ideal, the person to be trained ought to have a minimum of West African School Certificate and the duration of the training should not be less than two weeks. However, it is common these days for NGOs to organise training programmes that hardly have legal content for two to three days and consider the products to be paralegals. In jurisdictions where the concept of paralegals has taken root such as the United Kingdom and the United States, the training is a diploma course that runs into several months. At the most, the trainees in these short human rights training workshops are community mobilisers, or women’s rights activists or defenders.

Producing community mobilisers or women’s rights defenders is very commendable and serves its own needed purpose but in order not to reduce the quality or value of paralegals as the concept presupposes they should not be referred to as paralegals because they cannot provide the services that a paralegal is expected to provide. In many cases they are illiterates who cannot read or write and three days or less is insufficient to acquire the skills and knowledge required to play the role of a paralegal. It is our proposal that the clarification is made and that the community mobilisers are not given roles they are not able to play or defend. This could get them into trouble as they do not have the ability to provide legal services.

Institutionalisation of the Paralegal Concept: The paralegals are known to play multiple roles in the various communities where they work. They acquire different skills during the training and these skills are applied in their day to day living as well as to benefit their communities. The skills include communication, counselling, community mobilising, mediation, advocacy, etc. They are found in NGO - managed legal aid clinics (such as the CIRDDOC Legal Aid Clinics), in lawyers’ chambers, churches, and NGOs working on public interest litigations. Paralegals are trained in three broad areas namely, justice administration, conflict resolution and advocacy. They are exposed to basic knowledge of the institutions and people involved in justice administration such as the police, the Courts, laws, their sources and available redress in case of violations, judicial officers and their roles. They also play active roles in justice administration. Paralegals are trained to understand such concepts as human rights and constitutional rights, litigation and procedures for enforcement of rights, affidavits, democracy, rule of law, arrest, detention and bail procedures, the legal system and basic legal terms. In the area of conflict resolution, paralegals are trained in the use of the various mechanisms for conflict resolution such as communication, negotiation, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and litigation.

The training also covers recording of cases mediated as well as monitoring and evaluation of the post-conflict situation. On advocacy, paralegals are trained in basic skills of networking, community mobilization and lobbying for various social issues which require change in law or policy. Such issues include gender inequality, violence against women, harmful traditional practices, HIV and AIDS, human rights, child abuse and neglect, rape and other sexual offences, women in marriage, will- making and the concept of next of kin.

In spite of the rich resource that resides in these men and women, there is no structured programme to tap their potentials and the rich pool of knowledge. Discussions led by HBF have been ongoing to explore the possibility of establishing a Paralegal Institute to regulate the training process and provide quality control. There is also the need for structured and effective engagement of paralegals on graduation. If it is properly institutionalised, then engaging them after graduation will become structured and more strategic. Several proposals are on the table, one of which is to collaborate with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in the training of paralegals and to popularise their use by practising lawyers in their law firms.

Customary courts in Nigeria are presided over by lay persons who have no inkling of legal rules or human rights. Only lately have some states started to appoint lawyers to sit in these courts. For this reason, litigants suffer a great deal in these courts – their right to fair hearing is violated and they hardly get justice in these courts. Women suffer the most because of patriarchal values which are prevalent in the society. CIRDDOC has opened discussions with the Judiciary to consider sending newly appointed customary court judges who are lay men and women to a two week paralegal training in order to gain background knowledge of the law and human rights to enable them perform their functions better and provide qualitative services to the society. While this is going on, discussions are also on with Deans of Faculties of Law in three pilot universities to integrate Paralegal studies into the curriculum as a Certificate course. If these discussions yield fruits, then the problem of where to deploy trained paralegals would be over and quality services in customary courts will be guaranteed. Also the programme will be able to support the work of the judiciary in providing access to justice to citizens at grassroots level.