Feature: Zambian paralegals working to bridge access to justice gap

2021-04-24 15:30:29 GMT2021-04-24 23:30:29(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

LUSAKA, April 24 (Xinhua) -- For a long time, many of the poor and vulnerable communities across Zambia viewed access to justice as a preserve of the elite and privileged in society.

To this end, many people were often denied justice because of not being able to afford the services of a lawyer.

However, this situation is slowly changing because of the coming on board of paralegals, who are now offering a range of legal services to the indigent and marginalized populations in the country.

In Zambia, paralegals are individuals that have received basic training in law and human rights. They are found in townships and villages, at correctional facilities and police station desks, or at legal advice desks run by civil society organizations.

They work to provide free legal aid services to members of the public, the majority of whom are poor. The primary duties of paralegals are to provide basic legal education, legal information, mediation, orientation and referrals.

While some work in established law firms, the majority of them belong to organizations affiliated to Paralegal Alliance Network (PAN), which is an umbrella organization that provides coordination services for legal aid service providers in Zambia.

For many low-income communities in Zambia, the term paralegal is now synonymous with access to justice because of the role paralegal officers are playing in ensuring vulnerable populations have access to justice.

Conversations with beneficiaries of free legal aid services offered by paralegals in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia as well as Kabwe, central Zambia revealed that communities are increasingly appreciative of these foot soldiers' work.

A case in point is 20-year-old Margan Mulenga, a young farmer in rural Kabwe, who recounted how a paralegal office helped him recover properties that were grabbed from him after the death of his father.

Mulenga said a paralegal officer helped him understand what the law provides in a situation like his. Upon learning his entitlements, Mulenga went on to seek redress in a court of law, a move that saw him regain his inheritance.

And Monica Zulu, a small-scale trader based in Lusaka, said a paralegal officer helped her secure child support for her two children whose father had abandoned his responsibility.

Zulu narrated how a paralegal officer arranged for a meeting with the father of her two children, which resulted in him (the father) agreeing to take responsibility.

"It has been two years and the father of my children has provided support since," an elated Zulu revealed.

Tomaida Ziba, a paralegal officer based in Chipata, eastern Zambia, observes that more and more people are gaining knowledge about their rights as a result of the many outreach programs conducted by paralegals.

"We now have a lot of people reporting cases of human rights abuses in the Eastern Province. This was not the case a decade ago. Communities are now aware of a range of human rights issues," explained Ziba, an officer with Eastern Province Women Development Association.

She further added that the presence of paralegal officers, who work hand in hand with local authorities in rural places, has also enabled rural communities to prevent a range of child and women rights abuses that are often rife in low-income environments.

Sefelino Mangimela, a paralegal office working with Prison Care and Counseling Association explained that the justice system and the courts, in particular, are becoming less congested because of mediation and negotiation services being offered at paralegals across the country.

"Many members of the public are now aware that it is not every case that has to be taken to the court of law. Some disputes can be settled through mediation and negotiation. That alone helps to decongest the justice system," said Mangimela.

He was, however, quick to point out that while paralegals are able to offer for free a range of legal aid services that one would otherwise pay for in some settings, they do not exist to take the place of qualified lawyers, who by law are mandated to represent a person in a court of law.

Mangimela's sentiments were echoed by his royal Highness Chief Chikwanda of Chikwanda Village in Mpika district, Northern Zambia who further pointed out that human rights education programs were helping bring about desirable transformation in rural areas as they encourage people to participate in development processes.

"Chikwanda Gender Justice Foundation, an initiative of royal administration, decided to incorporate paralegals in its programs and that has worked well for the community in terms of fostering human rights and development. To this end, we have witnessed a reduction in a range of gender-based violence cases in the chiefdom," the traditional leader revealed.

And Paralegal Alliance Network Coordinator Phillip Sabuni reiterated the fact that many members of the public are becoming aware of the services offered by paralegals as evidenced by the increase in the number of people seeking help from paralegal desks across the country.

"It is good to note that paralegals in Zambia are now recognized both by the law and the legal aid policy. The recognition shows that their work is of great help to the justice system and communities," Sabuni asserted. Enditem

| PRINT | RSS