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Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Role of Community Paralegals in Fight Against Ebola – Lessons for COVID-19

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On March 31, 2020, Sierra Leone recorded its index case of COVID-19. Prior to this date, the government had instituted measures such as a declaration of a state of public   emergency, suspending flights; closing borders with Guinea and Liberia, as well as schools and universities/colleges; banning large public gatherings, and urging people to practice social/physical distancing and  basic hygiene, including regular hand washing and use of hand sanitizers, to prevent and contain the spread of the virus. 
 
In 2014 onto 2016, the country grappled with the Ebola epidemic, which according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention resulted in the death of 3,956 people. Similar restrictions were employed during the Ebola epidemic outbreak and stakeholders including community leaders played a key role in slowing the virus down by stemming high prevalence of new infections. During this pandemic, national stakeholders—state and non-state actors are expected to play the same role in the response just as they did during the Ebola epidemic. One such actor are community-based paralegals.
 
One may want to ask who are paralegals? Paralegals are persons recruited from local communities and trained in basic principles of law, human rights and the workings of government. They are trained in skills such as mediation, organizing, communication, and advocacy. The Legal Aid Act 2012 refers to them as “legal aid providers.” Through their organisations, paralegals are accredited to provide legal aid services to individuals and communities, that is, legal advice and assistance – this entails providing information on the law and legal processes, assisting with alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, drafting legal documents other than those reserved for lawyers under the Legal Practitioners Act 2000. Paralegals are, however, prohibited from providing legal representation.
 
Paralegals have over the years contributed immensely to closing the justice gap in the country by providing access to justice services to ordinary peoples’ daily justice problems. In a country where reports are replete with the characterization of the justice sector as poor in terms of service delivery, exacerbated by limited access to justice services and institutions, allocation of resources; shortage of staff and limited capacity within the ranks of judicial and administrative staff; backlog of cases, delays in the administration of justice, as well as corruption within the judiciary; paralegals are increasingly earning public confidence and legitimacy in local communities. More so, recent studies show that community-based justice services are more frequently used by the majority of the population and result in a higher rate of resolution of legal and justice problems.   
 
In a legal needs study conducted by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) in 2018, the findings show that only 8% of respondents interviewed sought legal redress in formal courts. The study further finds 10% of respondents sought the services of a lawyer, 13% contacted a leader or organisation for mediation, whereas 14% used dialogue or reconciliation processes. The findings further show that more legal and justice problems were resolved when alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as mediation were used in contrast to court processes initiated by respondents – 54% rate of resolution in contrast to 18% respectively. 
 
Additionally, data coming from the Legal Aid Board and paralegal organisations indicate the resolution of hundreds of cases by paralegals – this includes both individual cases and community level problems which would otherwise have been unresolved without their intervention. They have generally assisted indigent persons – marginalized women and girls, persons with disabilities, and organized communities in taking action to find concrete solutions to legal and justice problems.
 
During the Ebola outbreak, paralegals were in the frontline, providing information on Ebola and raising awareness to prevent the spread of the virus and contributed to containment efforts. OSIWA supported these interventions and other community-lead interventions across the country. Given the rapid spread of misinformation, fake news, and rumormongering on social media and other platforms, paralegals can help address this during COVID-19 by providing accurate information to communities. Misinformation and fake news create panic and are counterproductive in any crisis period. Paralegals can also provide legal education on emergency laws and regulations, assist persons arrested and those that face legal problems, abuse and violation of human rights especially by law enforcement agencies implementing emergency declaration and rules, as they did during the Ebola outbreak. Like primary health workers, paralegals are based in communities in which they work (mostly chiefdoms) and can deploy flexible tools, such as providing information, organizing, and mediating when assisting people and communities. They can collaborate with community leaders to coordinate COVID-19 response efforts within their communities and help explain emergency regulations to the people. Local communities were very active during the Ebola outbreak, engaging in social mobilization, which contributed to building social capital for response and containment efforts. This is a good lesson learned and can be adopted during this pandemic. 
 
Finally, scaling down of court operations and restrictions in movements during the pandemic will result to frequent adjournments of cases, absence of judicial personnel and consequently add to the backlog of cases and slow delivery of justice in the courts. Hence, meeting the justice needs of communities will become more apparent, and reliance on informal justice services and/or solutions such as those provided by paralegals will be high. Paralegals can fill this gap. 
 
To make this possible, paralegals should be supported by government and other donor agencies providing emergency support for COVID-19. The government, through the Legal Aid Board, can support both the Board’s paralegals and those within non-governmental organisations to enable them play this role. This will not only maximize the resources available and avoid duplication; it will ensure national coverage of services since the Legal Aid Board does not have offices across the country. It is also an opportunity for the Board to leverage its strategic and coordinating role that it is expected to play in providing legal aid services in the country. Sierra Leone has invested significant resources in training a substantial number of paralegals, now is the time to engage and bring them onboard the fight to end this pandemic so as to reap the dividends of our investment.
 
Nancy Sesay is the Program Coordinator at OSIWA. She is a Lawyer and has worked with paralegals for over 15 years and co-directed Timap for Justice for over six years during which Timap pioneered community-based paralegal work in the country resulting to the enactment of the Legal Aid Act 2012.

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