Check this space for daily updates on the West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit:
Day 1 — Partnerships with Government on Legal Empowerment
The inaugural West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit began with a High-Level Opening Session followed by a panel discussion on Strengthened Partnerships with Government on Legal Empowerment: How Practitioners are Effectively Engaging.
In opening the summit, Amina Hanga, Executive Secretary of Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative (IWEI), based in Kano, Nigeria, cited an African proverb: “If you want go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” She highlighted the importance of collaboration among West Africa’s legal empowerment practitioners and between practitioners and governments, and hoped the summit would mark the beginning of a regional conversation on legal empowerment and justice for all.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Elder and former president of Liberia, hailed the work of paralegals and community advocates. “You are doing essential work on the frontlines, helping people to understand, use and shape the law,” she said. “It is vital for governments to work hand in hand with civil society, and to recognise, resource and protect grassroots justice workers.”
Malick Sall, Senegal’s Minister of Justice, argued that West Africa “must not give up its efforts to fight injustice even while we’re distracted by the pandemic.” He noted how in many countries curfew and lockdown measures have increased domestic violence and triggered an upsurge in divorce and other family conflicts, and encouraged states to address these problems by partnering with civil society to advance access to justice and reach those who have previously been excluded.
Allyson Maynard-Gibson, the former Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs of the Bahamas, argued that legal empowerment practitioners are vital for bringing remote and marginalized communities into the fold. They can inform governments of the justice issues people are facing, and suggest home-grown solutions to them. Discussions with civils society organizations in the Bahamas, for example, led the government to establish centers in remote communities where people could obtain certified documentation such as birth and death certificates without having to go to the distant capital city. “By working with people on the ground who know the people involved and the cultural nuances,” she said, “issues can be rapidly addressed.”
In the ensuing panel discussion on how legal empowerment practitioners can strengthen partnerships with government, speakers from Burkina Faso and Nigeria gave several examples of fruitful collaboration.
Fatima Adamu of IWEI Nigeria and Abubakar Ahmed Umar of the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria discussed their joint efforts on capacity-building, whereby IWEI trains community-based paralegals and the Legal Aid Council supports the training and registers legal empowerment practitioners and organizations. The latter also provides a cover letter with a list of trained paralegals in the areas where IWEI works, so that communities will know that they are genuine practitioners who have received adequate training.
In Burkina Faso, as Ousseynou Ngom of the Open Government Partnership and Bilgho Palakwinde of the Legal Aid Council explained, the Ministry of Labor responded to discussions with civil society organizations by creating access to justice centers in remote communities. These are managed by informal justice actors who assist with cases and provide legal education and information. The government also provides training for paralegals, and has established a legal aid program which has so far helped more than 1,000 poor and marginalized individuals to access justice without incurring large costs.
In the question and answer session that concluded the first day of the summit, the following key points were raised:
- The need to advocate for legal aid to be considered as a priority service during the pandemic, so that the justice gap does not widen further while governments are distracted by public health challenges.
- The need for paralegals to be fully recognized by the legal system, so that they will have legitimacy both within communities and in the formal justice system.
- The role of community-based justice providers in tackling domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fatima Adamu reported that IWEI had set up a special response team comprised of justice actors including civil society organizations, local chiefs, the Nigerian police, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The team uses its network to deal with individual cases — for example coordinating with village heads to provide shelter for women who are experiencing violence — and to train the police and other state actors to respond sensitively and effectively to domestic violence cases.
- The need to consider women’s lack of access to justice, which is a result of lack of finances, lack of education, and cultural barriers that deter women from seeking such help. In Burkina Faso, women attending legal aid centers do not have to fulfill the specific conditions that are imposed on other groups. In northern Nigeria, IWEI deliberately targets women for training as paralegals, so that female justice seekers will feel more comfortable when dealing with them.
Concluding the session, Sabrina Mahtani of Sierra Leone’s Advocaid suggested that for legal empowerment to take root and multiply, there is a need for governments to understand and support them. Working together, she added, they can reach more people more effectively, and make great strides in advancing the justice for all agenda.
Day 2 — Legal empowerment, COVID-19 and Beyond: Solutions to challenges and necessary adaptations
Discussions during the second day of the West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit provided examples of how legal empowerment practitioners can adapt and innovate to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Introducing the panel, Megan Chapman, Co-director of Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), based in Lagos, Nigeria, noted that although data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in West Africa is unreliable, the economic and social effects of the pandemic are already beginning to be felt. Court closures and restriction on movement are hampering the work of legal empowerment organizations, forcing them to innovate to tackle the new challenges presented by the virus.
The first panelist, JEI’s Fred Patrick, works as a paralegal among the urban poor in Lagos. He reported that during the city’s lockdown, many street vendors had been arrested for going out to work or violating other protocols. In order to secure access to those in custody, JEI made use of its network of paralegals and asked those who lived near the mobile courts where hawkers were most often arraigned to visit them and report back on their cases to the organization’s office via Zoom.
JEI also adapted its training programs for paralegals, moving them online after the virus struck. At first this was difficult, Mr Patrick reported, because many trainees did not have smartphones. To overcome this, the trainers encouraged those who did have phones to share them with peers without phones who were living in the same community. Sharing smartphones in this way meant that more people were able to complete the training and become qualified paralegals.
The second panelist, Daniel Sessay from Namati in Sierra Leone, works primarily in rural areas, helping poor and marginalized communities to defend their land rights and protect their environment against rapacious businesses. When the coronavirus reached Sierra Leone, restrictions on movement were implemented immediately, and companies took advantage of the absence of community legal advocates to push for more land leases to be signed and to despoil the environment with impunity.
To adapt to the challenge and respond to clients’ concerns, Namati Sierra Leone held virtual meetings with them by phone, engaging them to map their land boundaries and monitor and amend lease agreements that their communities were considering signing. It used a toll-free phone line to give advice on environmental issues. And to continue to advocate at a national level, the organization convened a WhatsApp group comprising people in the communities it served to draft a letter to the country’s president pushing for land reform.
Messan Kounagbe, a jurist with JEI in Benin, reported that his organization had conducted a telephone survey to gauge the impact of COVID-19 in the communities it serves. One of the problems highlighted by this survey related to face masks. Masks are unaffordable for many people in Benin, Mr Kounagbe said, rendering it impossible for them to leave home without being arrested. JEI therefore made thousands of face masks and distributed them to disadvantaged communities. As well as allowing people to go about their daily lives, by helping prevent justice problems this reduced the burden on legal empowerment and other legal practitioners.
The final panelist, Nankunda Katangaza of the Africa Law and Tech Network, argued that even small-scale technologies such as SMS messaging offer practitioners a way to reach more of those in need as well as the potential for greater efficiency and reduced costs in the provision of services. Ms Katangaza cited Uganda’s Barefoot Lawyers and Lawyers for Farmers and Benin’s He! Lawyer as successful examples of low-cost SMS- or WhatsApp-based services which provide legal advice and support to marginalized communities.
The economic impacts of COVID-19, however, will affect people’s ability to access technological solutions to justice problems. West Africa already suffers from poor electricity supplies and low access to smartphones and internet data, and a global economic contraction will exacerbate these deficiencies. At the same time, the need for legal support will increase, as small business go bankrupt, debts become harder to pay, and domestic violence and other problems become more common.
To combat these problems, Ms Katangaza argued, governments should review the regulation of the legal sector and open it up to more innovation and new participants. Regulatory frameworks in West Africa, she said, are out of step with the needs of the legal profession and of society. Opening up the field and providing financial and technical support to paralegals, CSOs, the private sector and other non-traditional providers is vital if governments are to fulfill their commitments to provide access to justice.
Day 3 — Coming soon!
Day 4 — Benchmarking & Scaling Legal Empowerment Projects: Good Practices
On the fourth day of the West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit, practitioners and policy-makers from Guinea, Sierra Leone, Kenya and the Philippines presented successful models of scaled-up legal empowerment programs.
Mohamed Jalloh, of the Lady Ellen Women’s Foundation (LEWAF) in Sierra Leone, described how his organization worked to promote legal education among communities with high rates of illiteracy. LEWAF made a picture message album showing gender rights violations such as domestic violence or forced marriages and informing women where they can access support when faced with such abuses. The organization has integrated legal empowerment into its economic empowerment activities for women, with peer educators delivering training on the picture album at weekly economic empowerment sessions in rural communities.
Annette Mbogoh, of Kenya’s Kituo cha Sheria, reported that her organization complements the direct legal support provided by its team of in-house lawyers with training in communities for volunteer paralegals. The 450 volunteers are based in community justice centers, working independently but with support from the in-house lawyers when required. Kituo cha Sheria also takes on strategic litigation cases that address clients’ needs at a broader, policy level. During Kenya’s COVID-19 lockdown, for example, it filed a successful case asking for legal services to be declared essential services, meaning that its lawyers and paralegals could continue to move around and work during curfews.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the organization had made use of technological solutions to reach more clients. In 2015 it developed a platform whereby communities could send an SMS and Kituo’s lawyers would respond within 48 hours. There is now also a mobile app version of the platform, and a toll-free phone line is being developed.
Like Kituo cha Sheria, Guinea’s MDT has a network of community-based volunteer paralegals that it trains to provide support to rural communities. Adrien Montcho, MDT’s National Coordinator, observed that in a country with very few lawyers and judges, these paralegals are essential for providing access to justice to marginalized groups such as women and girls who are victims of trafficking or forced marriage, prisoners, and poor rural communities whose land is expropriated or polluted by the mining industry. To assist the many Guinean prisoners who are improperly sentenced or held in custody for long periods without trial, MDT places paralegals in police stations to train the police and track the progress of prisoners’ cases.
The Alternative Law Groups (ALG) coalition in the Philippines also works with its country’s security sector to strengthen access to justice. As Sheila Formento reported, the organization has developed two training modules to engage the police and military in dialogue and help them to integrate human rights work into their work. The coalition comprises 18 legal NGOs, working on legal education, advocacy for policy reform, public interest litigation, and research. It provides sector-specific training to its network of paralegals — for example, training on environmental issues or on indigenous people’s issues — so that they have the knowledge to work on the specific challenges facing their partner communities. It also partners with universities to deploy law students with member organizations as interns. By immersing students in their alternative lawyering methods, ALG hopes to encourage them to adopt such methods after they graduate.
The final presentation was from a policy-maker, Michala Mackay of Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation. Ms Mackay discussed technological means of enhancing access to justice, emphasizing the importance of tailoring interventions to local contexts rather than “copying and pasting” technologies that have worked in very different environments. To ensure that innovations are appropriate, she added, participatory design is critical. Asking how community members want information to be channelled and in which language, for example, is as important as engaging lawyers and technology professionals in design.