Bringing the law to the people: The role of community paralegals in our country

Community paralegals have assisted many people in Sierra Leone. (Photo: Timap for Justice)

Community paralegals have assisted many people in Sierra Leone. (Photo: Timap for Justice)

By Thandeka Kathi, Legal Intern at the Wits Justice Project

The marginalized people in society rarely have access to justice because they face many impediments, such as lack of knowledge of the law. When they do know their rights, they cannot afford the services of a lawyer. When lawyers are available pro bono they are usually out of reach, because their offices are based in the cities.

This is a flaw in our legal system. On one hand we have a legal system which boasts one of the best constitutions in the world. But on the other hand we have people who do not have access to legal remedies.

This is where community-based paralegals can help, especially in rural settings.

I recently attended a Justice for Breakfast event on the role of community-based paralegals, held by the Wits Justice Project and the Wits Graduate School for Public and Development Management. Before this event, I did not know that this branch of paralegals existed. I thought that paralegals worked in law firms and banks to help attorneys with legal research and so forth.

I learned that there is no agreed-upon definition of what a community-based paralegal is. According to the World Bank “Definitions vary, but roughly a community-based paralegal is a person trained in law and the workings of government who employs tools like education, mediation, advocacy, and organizing to address instances of injustice”.  Therefore, a community-based paralegal is more than a legal assistant. At the roundtable there was much debate as to whether a common definition of the term “community paralegal” is needed or if we leave it as it is because a broad definition gives the community access to individuals who possess a variety of skills.

While I acknowledge the importance of community-based paralegals and the positive impact they have, especially in rural communities, I am also concerned about the negative impact they might have.

The law is a complicated machine that has to be operated with the utmost care. I am fearful that people who have not received training in the law can give legal advice. My concerns were echoed by Ruby Matthys, who represented the Association of Regional Magistrates of Southern Africa. She warned that the community is vulnerable to people who may not be qualified to give legal advice and who are not held accountable for the advice that they give.

The regulation of paralegals is essential to ensure that the community is protected. The second draft of the Legal Practice Bill does not include the regulation of paralegals. The Law Society of South Africa, in its submissions about the Legal Practice Bill lists the exclusion of community-based paralegals from the Bill as positive. I do not understand why this is viewed as positive because leaving community-based paralegals unregulated makes communities vulnerable to unqualified people posing as community-based paralegals.

In my opinion, community-based paralegals should be regulated because they play a vital role in bringing justice to the people. In the words of one roundtable participant, “Community-based paralegals can be traced to the 1980s. They are resilient and are not going anywhere”. Therefore they should be regulated like all other professions.


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

4 Responses to Bringing the law to the people: The role of community paralegals in our country

  1. Very interesting info!Perfect just what I was searching for.

  2. Restus says:

    Very interesting. It is indeed best for our community at large to get justice they deserve, through paralegals of course.


    This is very inspirational and enhearten more especially for a person who would like to pursue a career in LAW,Paralegal Assistance to be specific,throughout my life as a high school student i have always wanted to reach out to the community and lend a hand to where it may reach but through a lot of growing up and life forces i came to the conclusion that “LAW” is what i want to study, not knowing that one or another way you do work with people and actually provide hard thought relief and solutions to all their problems with reference of cause being what they ‘should’ know their rights and responsibilities as South African citizens .With this being my fifth month in University as a first year student studying Paralegal i have always thought of this career that I HAVE CHOSEN as such a restricting career because in my mind i always thought studying law can only lead you to one career and that is to practice as an attorney or an advocate .now with even broader knowledge from this page i can truelly say that helping people is really what i am assigned on this earth to do and with great people like YOU i believe and hope that South Africa is going to greater heights .indeed there is Justice in SOUTH AFRICA …!!!…

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