West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit – Daily Reports


Daily reports from each session of 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 — Financing for Legal Empowerment: Options & Opportunities for Lasting Impact

Discussions on the third day of the inaugural West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit centered on how to ensure sustainable financing for legal empowerment activities.

Opening the session, Afia Asantewaa Asare-Kyei of OSIWA referred to a recent survey of 900 legal empowerment organizations in West Africa. 54% of them said they may not have sufficient funds to survive for the next year. A further 32% said they would have to make cuts because of financial difficulties.

OSIWA provides grants and technical support for legal empowerment practitioners across the region, but Ms Asare-Kyei argued that relying on donors and governments alone is risky, since the latter’s priorities often change and much of their funding is short-term and project-based. A more sustainable funding model, she said, requires the engagement of multiple funders.

Panellists suggested a number of ways of diversifying funding sources. Mademba Gueye, of Senegal’s Maisons de Justice reported that although the bulk of the budget of these community-based justice centers is provided by the national government, they also receive funding from OSIWA and the World Bank, and from local partners such as mayors and universities. He noted that when donors are considering providing funds, they want to know if the organization is sustainable. The long-term support the Maisons de Justice receive from the government means that they can reply in the affirmative.

Two panellists recommended a social enterprise model for diversifying funding, whereby organizations devise creative means of generating income to support their core socially-focused work.

Chelcy Heroe, of Sierra Leone’s Domestic Helpers Association, reported that her organization earns revenue from activities such as training domestic workers, providing consultancy to returned migrants, and holding fundraising events both online and offline.

South Africa’s Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) raises funds from local and international donors and channels them to grassroots social justice organizations including paralegal offices. SCAT programme director Seth Tladi noted that many of the organizations have also developed revenue-raising activities such as livestock farming, beekeeping, communal food gardens, and music and sports competitions for the local community. For every rand an organization makes from these activities, SCAT provides five rand of additional funds. The aim is to minimize their dependence on donor funding.

Reducing costs is another way to make legal empowerment organizations more sustainable. Patrick John Bull, of Sierra Leone’s Centre for Access to Justice, Peace and Human Rights, told the summit that most of the organization’s members are volunteers, who are trained on mediation, peacebuilding and other legal issues. Fatmata Soire is the president of LAWYERS, a group of volunteer female lawyers in Sierra Leone who provide free legal assistance to women and girls. The group’s costs are limited to its support staff, whose pay is covered by donor funding and membership fees.

Although a range of funding sources is desirable, there was broad agreement among panellists that consistent support from government is one of the most reliable ways to ensure sustainability. Nancy Sesay of OSIWA presented the model of Sierra Leone’s Legal Aid Act, which was passed in a 2012 after an advocacy campaign led by TIMAP for Justice. The act recognized paralegals, law clinics and CSOs as critical legal aid providers, and it established a Legal Aid Board which channels public funds to these organizations. “We know government funding is the most secure and sustainable source of support for legal empowerment work,” Ms Sesay observed. “But we still have challenges because government funding is inadequate.” She suggested that paralegals should attempt to leverage governments’ international commitments — to the Sustainable Development Goals, for example, or the Open Government Partnership — as a way to persuade them to devote more funding to legal empowerment.

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.

Day 5 — Regional opportunities, Networking and the ECOWAS Justice Agenda: Building West Africa Connections for Advocacy & Synergy

During the concluding session of the West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit, speakers made a number of commitments to taking forward legal empowerment work in the region.

Musa F Dean, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Liberia, committed to continuing to use the Open Government Partnership (OGP) platform to advance citizen-centered justice reforms. “For too many people in the world,” he said, “government is seen as a distant, unresponsive and sometimes corrupt institution that doesn’t promote the interests of ordinary citizens.” OGP brings together reformers who are determined to make their governments more open, accountable and responsive.

Liberia is developing its fourth OGP action plan, which includes commitments to help citizens to know their rights and to strengthen their ability to monitor the justice system. The plan also includes a commitment to use alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, including legal empowerment, to expand access to justice. The Minister encouraged other West African OGP member countries to use action plans to promote justice.

Maarten Brouwer, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Mali, argued that the need for justice will increase as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, yet in many countries investment in justice had declined in the years preceding the pandemic. Recent turmoil in Mali, he added, demonstrates the need to invest in people-centered justice solutions, and the Netherlands commits to continuing to work towards SDG 16 by supporting Mali and other countries in the Sahel to bring justice closer to the people and make it more responsive to their needs. Access to justice, he said, is a cornerstone of his country’s efforts to reduce instability and promote development in the Sahel, and its paralegal networks have reached more than 300,000 people with legal awareness counselling, referrals, and dispute resolution.

Eyesan Okorodudu of the ECOWAS Commission called for civil society organizations in West Africa to assist ECOWAS as it develops its strategic framework for justice in the region. The organization is keen to bring paralegals on board in drafting the policy as it aims to achieve convergence between member states on measures to recognize, protect and support the sector. Mr Okorodudu called for stakeholders including CSOs and legal empowerment practitioners to draft policy documents that can feed into and strengthen the ECOWAS framework.

Paige Alexander of the Carter Center, whose West Africa work focuses primarily on Liberia, committed her organization to:

  • Supporting awareness raising on access to justice in Liberia
  • Providing technical support to the Liberian government’s plan to develop a national policy for alternative dispute resolution
  • Seeking mechanisms to allow partners to build capacity to expand access to justice
  • Fomenting a new community of practice that aims to deliver justice for all.

“We need to nurture both formal and informal justice systems if we are to achieve justice for all,” Ms Alexander added.

Abigail Moy of the global legal empowerment network Namati committed her organization to:

  • Working with legal empowerment organization in West Africa to strengthen a robust regional peer network
  • Cultivating a network of legal empowerment practitioners for collaboration and coordination
  • Supporting West African grassroots organizations to deepen the impact, sustainability and quality of legal empowerment work via high-quality learning events
  • Working with Namati’s West African member organizations to seize regional opportunities.

Simeon Koroma, of the African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice, a continent-wide network of African CSOs, told the summit that the organization’s main commitment for West Africa is “to push for the development and adoption of legal and other mechanisms that promote, facilitate and incorporate paralegal and indigenous community justice solutions that are accessible and affordable.” Its key priority areas for the region are to:

  • Expand membership
  • Increase research and documentation of best practices
  • Conduct capacity-building exchanges
  • Increase advocacy for the recognition and participation of paralegals in justice systems.

Finally, Ayisha Osori, of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), a grant making and advocacy organization working in ten countries within the region, emphasized the importance of political will in ensuring that legal empowerment work is sustainable. An effective way to ensure the sustainability of projects, she suggested, is to allow government and local communities to take ownership of them. OSIWA’s commitments for West Africa are as follows:

  • To conduct advocacy on the importance of legal aid and alternative justice mechanisms
  • To work with partners to standardise paralegal training curriculums, where possible
  • To encourage more countries to set up legal aid boards like that established in Sierra Leone
  • To help mainstream alternative justice solutions into the formal justice system
  • To support more multi-stakeholder collaborations across the region.