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Sierra Leone Parliament Passes Landmark Legal Aid Law

by Sonkita Conteh and Lotta Teale

Freetown, Sierra Leone

On May 10, 2012 the Sierra Leone Parliament enacted one of the most progressive  legal aid laws in Africa. In a clear demonstration of consensus, a committee of the entire house approved the bill, with all three readings in less than one hour, providing the legal architecture for Sierra Leone’s first nationwide legal aid system. The bill provides for a mixed model of criminal and civil legal aid, from provision of legal information and mediation services through to representation in court, and supplied through a public/private partnership of government, private sector and civil society. Local civil society, particularly a coalition of justice service providers, were instrumental in the processes leading up to enactment, providing both oral and written input at consultative meetings, as well as public pressure when there was a lack of progress. The former pilot national legal aid scheme also played an essential driving role. This is a triumph for participatory decision-making and a noteworthy achievement on a continent with significant justice problems.

The Bill’s most unique feature is its endorsement of paralegals, civil society organisations, and others as providers of legal aid services.

The Bill, for which consultations began in 2008, is distinctive in several respects. Its most unique feature is its endorsement of paralegals, university law clinics, civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations, alongside legal practitioners, as providers of legal aid services. By explicitly providing that paralegals are to be deployed in each of Sierra Leone’s 149 chiefdoms, the Bill ensures that a flexible and cost effective method of delivering justice services to large parts of the population will be available to help reduce the present access to justice deficit.

A network of community-based paralegals already operates across Sierra Leone, reaching 8 out of 12 districts and the capital city Freetown, with a total of 76 paralegals across 33 locations, housed within a range of civil society organisations. They help individuals and community members find practical solutions to concrete justice problems, using education, mediation, organizing and advocacy. Supported and supervised by a small corps of lawyers who can litigate intractable cases if necessary, collectively they provide a creative and flexible model to advance justice, even in the most remote of rural areas. The paralegals bridge a gap between the formal law, government institutions and customary justice mechanisms, by virtue of their familiarity with local communities, informal systems and local power dynamics. Paralegals address intra-community breaches of rights (e.g. domestic violence, land disputes) as well as conflicts between people and their authorities (e.g. corruption, abuse of authority, failures in service delivery). They strive to solve clients’ justice problems— demonstrating concretely that justice is possible—and at the same time to cultivate the agency of the communities among which they work.

Sierra Leone is setting a pioneering example of creating a cost-effective national system for delivering basic justice services, which not only supports clients through the court system, but allows for alternative, more flexible approaches.

This network emerges out of a model developed by Sierra Leonean NGO Timap for Justice since 2004, and which, since 2009, has been scaled up across the country. The Open Society Justice Initiative, together with the Government of Sierra Leone, Timap for Justice, the World Bank, DFID and four other civil society organizations (BRAC Sierra Leone, Methodist Church Sierra Leone, Access to Justice Law Centre, and the Justice and Peace Commission) , have sought to develop a national approach to justice services on the model formulated by Timap. To date however, this has merely been acting on an informal basis. The new law sets in place systems for Government recognition of such justice service providers, and paves the way for their integration into a comprehensive network of legal aid providers. During the pre-legislative session on 9th May 2012, Members of Parliament noted the importance of the services provided by community-based paralegals in addressing the needs of their constituents, and expressed strong support for their inclusion in the Bill. Sierra Leone is setting a pioneering example of creating a cost-effective national system for delivering basic justice services, which not only supports clients through the court system, but allows for alternative, more flexible approaches for people to resolve their own justice problems in the way most appropriate to their personal needs and situation. Success of this effort has great significance for many places in the world and it is hoped that international assistance can be provided in a coordinated and strategic manner.

The new law also integrates many of the principles contained in the Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems which was adopted by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) at its 21st session on 27th April 2012 in Vienna. For example, the law recognizes the important role that paralegals can play in the criminal justice system building on the results of a pilot project which was launched by Timap for Justice in 2009 with support from the Open Society Justice Initiative to demonstrate impact of strategic early intervention at police stations to minimize the harm that unnecessary pretrial detention inflicts. In November 2011, Sierra Leone’s Honourable Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Frank Kargbo, represented the country at a preparatory intergovernmental expert group meeting, alongside 39 other States which finalized draft of the UN Principles and Guidelines and recommended that it be further considered by the CCPCJ for approval. In the passage of this law, the Government of Sierra Leone is now the first State to affirm its commitment to these Principles by making substantial reforms at home.

There will be still more work for the protagonists in the passage of the legal aid law to ensure that it lives up to expectations.

Open Society Justice Initiative staff in Freetown have been supportive of and provided technical input into the legislative process throughout, with Sonkita Conteh, Project Manager and Advocate of the High Court of Sierra Leone, presenting the Bill during the pre-legislative session. Responsibility for the management of this work has recently been entrusted to Namati: Innovations in Legal Empowerment. Namati is a new international organisation dedicated to innovation and research in legal empowerment, established with support from Open Society Foundations, DFID and AusAid. Namati and Open Society Justice Initiative have established a global network of legal empowerment practitioners, including civil society, multilateral agencies, scholars and governments, to provide mutual support, learn from good practices and common challenges, and undertake research into the impact and boundaries of legal empowerment, across the world. They also support projects in a number of countries, including Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique, Ukraine, Indonesia, Pakistan and India, among others. The initiative’s efforts are guided by an International Advisory Council comprising Amartya Sen, Fazle Abed, Mo Ibrahim, Madeleine Albright, Helen Clark, Fernando Cardoso and George Soros.

The Bill will now be submitted to the President for his assent, after which the significant task of setting up the institutions will begin. Since it embarked on a process of law reform in the 1990s, Sierra Leone has scored high marks for passing important laws, but it has not been as successful in implementation. There will be still more work for the protagonists in the passage of the legal aid law to ensure that it lives up to expectations.

For further information about legal aid in Sierra Leone:

Read the Open Society Foundations’ coverage of the story here.

Read Executive Director of the Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law, Ibrahim Tommy’s op-ed urging the passage of the bill. 

Download a draft of the 2011 version of the Legal Aid bill, on our Tools Database. 

Learn more about Namati’s work in scaling up legal aid in Sierra Leone here.


May 11, 2012 | Namati