Sierra Leone – Empowering the poor through community-based paralegals

Sonkita Conteh, LLM, LLB (Hons), BL, Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of Sierra Leone, has been advocating that Sierra Leone  provide legal empowerment to the poor to rectify a severe  imbalance in access to justice. He states, “one principally effective and inexpensive way [this] has been through [is] the use of community-based paralegals.” In an article yesterday in Sierra Express Media he notes that the process of paralegal utilization is impeded by “misconceptions about paralegal” among lawyers.

Paralegals in Sierra Leone are different than paralegals in the United States, although Conteh notes that “In terms of litigation, paralegals can and do provide lawyers with support services- filing and serving documents, chasing up witnesses, taking down notes during court sessions and more.” However, apparently there is enough similarity that the misconceptions among lawyers there are similar to those held here. Take, for example, number six, of the ten misconceptions he attempts to correct:

While lawyers and paralegals may not have the same level or type of skill set, it is unfair and indefensible to hold that paralegals provide substandard services. The error is in trying to equate the work of a paralegal to that of a lawyer. Paralegals may not carry out forcible mergers and hostile takeovers because they are not trained for that and may not display the standard of drafting excellence or oratorical wit of a lawyer. Yet, they can mediate and ensure that a child is maintained in some far flung rural outpost where lawyers have never trod or help farmers get the much needed seed rice to plant before the sowing season ends. Justice problems vary in intensity and scope and cannot all be addressed by one person or group. Paralegals who tackle the ordinary, down-to-earth problems of communities contribute no less to the attainment of justice than their cousins who handle the more ‘glamorous’ matters. (Emphasis added)

Again, the context is different, but the error – not understanding the unique role of the paralegal – is one that remains a problem among many members of the American bar.

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