Inclusive, Enabling Communities

Inclusive, Enabling Communities
Learning Brief

Centre for Community Justice and Development

The role of community-based paralegals in providing legal assistance to women

Category: Inclusive, Enabling Communities | Women and children affected by abuse/violence | 8 October, 2014 - 12:49



The Centre for Community Justice and Development’s (CCJD) outreach programme was developed to primarily build the capacity of disadvantaged communities to know, assert and access their rights, and second, to remove barriers to access to justice. Using foundational research, CCJD established community advice offices located at local criminal justice institutions: twelve at police stations, two at magistrate courts, and one at a traditional court. These advice offices are run by local women trained in paralegal skills, human rights, victim assistance, as well as the provision of education and awareness to rural communities.

Developing a model for community-based paralegals

The European Union funded the first community advice office, which was established in 1997 at Plessislaer Police Station. It served large townships, peri-urban areas and rural areas in the greater Pietermaritzburg region. The process was facilitated by the good working relationship already established between CCJD and the Plessislaer police station. The pilot project proved so successful that the police station commander and surrounding communities advocated for its replication in other areas. Additional donor funding was raised and a further fifteen advice offices were soon established at police stations and magistrate courts throughout KwaZulu-Natal.

Initially the main focus was on access to justice for women and children, especially the victims of crimes such as rape, assault and other forms of abuse, but it soon became apparent that the facilitation of access to other services was unavoidable. In time, support was widened to include advice on obtaining financial entitlements, documents, accessing labour rights, and other issues for all people.

The paralegals’ connection to the communities in which they operate

The CCJD paralegal programme employs local women who come from, and live in, the communities they serve. CCJD paralegals are women because the majority of people who visit the advice offices are women – often victims of violence perpetrated by men. The paralegals have worked at their advice offices for an average of ten years and are in touch with their community dynamics because they are part of that community.

The community-based paralegals share a culture and language with the people they serve. Their knowledge of the law and traditional practices enables them to provide effective, basic, socio-legal services that are sensitive to local customs. Moreover, they understand the dynamics of their own community, and the value of social harmony in a way that an outside service provider might not.

Recruitment and training community-based paralegals

We recruit paralegals from the area in which they will serve, and the process involves consultation with various community structures. Candidates must have a Grade 12 Matriculation, and must demonstrate the emotional maturity to cope with the programme. After interviews with the candidates the appraisal process involves three phases.

Phase one includes six months of induction and orientation. It covers the basics of how to interview and take statements; how to conduct outreach work; interaction with community members; interaction with clients; interactions with programme partners such as the police and courts and other stakeholders such traditional leaders, and civic structures. During this phase a stipend is paid.

Phase two is paralegal training. Candidates have to succeed in phase one to qualify to study for the paralegal diploma. This phase is offered after the six months introduction and they have shown the potential to cope with the paralegal diploma. The stipend is increased to cover relocation costs for six months while studying.

Phase three is post-assessment of paralegal training, and lasts in between six and eight months. Paralegals are assessed on their practical ability to provide sound legal advice, and improve their knowledge of the law. The Diploma is awarded after this phase to those who demonstrate competency.

Finally, CCJD provides on-going training, four times a year, to update paralegals on changes or new legislation. Training is also given on emerging issues arising from their interaction with community members and other stakeholders. This extensive process is instrumental in the maintained success of CCJD’s unique rural paralegal programme. 

Establishing stakeholder relations with the SAPS

The SAPS is the most important stakeholder in the CCJD paralegal programme. The police refer more clients to CCJD than do any other organisation. They often refer victims to advice offices because they do not know how to deal with a case, or because they need help with counselling and taking statements. Many clients even come to the advice offices before reporting a crime. The paralegals then help with counselling and statements before directing them to the police to lay a charge.

Police officers’ workload is easier when an advice office is located at the police station, because the paralegals help them deal with people rural, uneducated, and traumatised people. This support provided by the paralegals improves police and legal service delivery.

Paralegal support and services provided

  • Paralegals work to address the unmet needs of rural communities, and strengthen the capacity of communities and residents to understand and act on their rights. They attend to community members who come to the advice offices by themselves, or who are referred by the police, courts, traditional authority, health clinics, and social welfare office. The paralegals offer a holistic set of approaches to deal with human and legal rights problems without involving the formal legal system.
  • The paralegals deal with diverse problems such as domestic violence, rape, child maintenance, and labour disputes, and abuse of children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. They also take on problems related to welfare like the child, old age, foster, and disability grants. In addition, they provide a very wide range of services which sometimes do not fall under clearly defined headings, such as disputes between families, disagreements involving money and property, juvenile delinquency, land issues, and HIV and AIDS-related problems.
  • Each case is treated as unique and the solutions provided are not ‘one-size-fits-all’. They assist community members to solve problems through approaches that encourage resolution without going to court. Most cases are resolved through dialogue with government institutions, and negotiations with private institutions.
  • In general, paralegals practice restorative justice principles, using an holistic approach to help resolve issues or problems within families, and with traditional and state institutions. Avoiding going to court saves considerable time and resources, which the poor do not have, and reduces the caseload in courts.
  • Paralegals conduct legal and human rights awareness raising activities in their communities, including visiting schools to make presentations on issues effecting learners such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, peer pressure, and bullying. They refer cases that are beyond the scope of their work to other institutions for further intervention. For example they assist with the documentation and administrative work relating to legal proceedings. Paralegals share information with individuals about relevant laws and administrative actions, their rights, and their options for accessing the services of other agencies.
  • Paralegals undertake outreach work in the form of community workshops and presentations to members of the community on central community problems and topics of interest. Many members of the community visit the advice offices after attending these workshops to report problems. The outreach activities educate people about how to recognise and report abuse, fostering respect for and knowledge of human rights with the objective of affecting constructive changes in the justice system and service delivery agencies.

Lessons learnt: the value of a community-based paralegal model

We have learnt that the community based paralegal model has value because it is able to interrupt domestic and gender-based violence, and it is able to provide holistic family support.

In many cases of domestic violence, clients prefer to use the paralegal mediation services rather than the less flexible system offered by the police and courts. Many clients, particularly victims of domestic abuse, prefer mediation because it relies on persuasion and consensus and enables the rebuilding of relationships. It is also a more expedient process as compared to the courts.

Moreover, the ability to speak to a female paralegal with a similar cultural background, in a private setting rather than a public charge office has encouraged thousands of women to report abuse. Paralegals are well known and respected in their community, and their location in police stations and courts provide places of safety.

The community-based paralegal model encourages women to confront violence. Paralegals’ long-term engagement with cases and on-going presence in the community reduces retaliatory violence against women who seek justice services, strengthening and complementing the formal and state justice processes, and bridging the gap between the law and the people.

Implementations lessons: the value of mediation

Our programme is built on the premise that mediation is not a weak option and does not allow excessive compromise. Rather, it’s about solving problems through dialogue in order to reasonably satisfy both parties. Mediation can save time, money, and anxiety, and is often a longer-lasting solution.

If a client chooses mediation, coordinators insist on speaking to both parties, advising them on how to resolve future conflicts, and trying to preserve and reconcile relations as much as possible. By adopting a neutral stance and explaining the protections and punishments provided by the law, and using the threat of protection orders and arrest if necessary, the paralegals can solve a large number of disputes.

The mediation process is flexible and quick. Advertised in the community by word of mouth, mediation encourages victims of domestic violence to report the abuse and it offers an array of flexible interventions. It provides an alternative to women who distrust the criminal justice system and do not want their partners to be arrested and prosecuted. Domestic violence victims often do not want to send their partners to jail, break up their family, or subject themself to the criminal process, causing many women to hide their involvement in an abusive relationship from friends and family.

In cases where mediation is not successful, the abuser shows no sign of behaviour change, and further physical harm is likely, the paralegals tell perpetrator of the legal consequences of their actions and advise the client to take out a protection order or to lay a charge. Paralegals have developed strong ties with their local police and once a protection order is filled out, it is usually confirmed. Once a formal charge is laid, an arrest swiftly follows.

Examples of successful paralegal assistance

In conclusion, the two cases below show how the paralegals used the law and mediation to resolve different family problems. They also show the extent to which paralegals can help resolve disputes amicably without going to court.

Case 1: issuing a protection order to curb domestic violence

“A 34-year-old unmarried woman came to report that she had been in love with a certain man and that they had a 6-year-old child. She had ended the relationship four months ago. Everything had been fine until her former boyfriend had assaulted her on her way from work. The police rescued her but the abuser was not arrested. Later that night, the abuser came to her home, kicked the doors, and threatened to kill her once again. Although the police had intervened, she needed further help with this matter. I advised the client about mediation and protection orders and how each of them worked. She said that she would prefer a protection order. I issued the protection order and the client was referred to the Magistrate's Court. The protection order was finalised and the client was very happy with the assistance that she had received from the advice office. I have followed up during the last two months and the client said that her boyfriend had not repeated the abuse.” – report from a paralegal.

Case 2: mediation solves dispute over child maintenance and school fees

In August 2012, a 36 year-old unmarried woman came to the paralegal office to report that her boyfriend, who is employed, was not maintaining his child. The child was attending the local primary school as a boarder and coming home for weekends. She wanted the father to pay the school and boarding fees but he refused. The paralegal invited both parties to mediation sessions. She let each tell their side of the story. Once they started to argue she calmed them down, and advised them on the Maintenance Act regarding a child’s right to maintenance from both parents. Afterwards, the boyfriend agreed to pay maintenance and the boarding and school fees. The parents agreed to jointly buy clothes for the child, and the client said she would pay for transport and other school expenses. They both left the office satisfied with the outcome.

11 Dulwich Road Scottsville Pietermaritzburg 3209

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In Short

In this learning brief the Centre for Community Justice and Development showcases a successful community-based paralegal programme. This model shows great value to interrupt domestic and gender-based violence, and to provide holistic family support through mediation processes.

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