Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
This interview with Jackline Mwende from The Centre for Legal Empowerment provides a lot of great insight into the unique ways paralegals are providing legal aid to prisoners in Kenya. This article has been cross-posted from the Innovating Justice website.
This project was mooted in response to the situation where the state only offers legal representation to people charged with capital offenses, leaving out others who are charged with other offenses. This together with the inability of most people in custody to understand the intricacies of the legal system results in miscarriages of justice as well as unnecessary congestion in the prisons. A fair hearing which is a constitutional right can only be possible when there is proper knowledge about the legal process by the persons in custody since majority of them are unrepresented. There is therefore a need for self-sustaining legal aid provision initiatives like this one to be embraced in as many prisons as possible.
This innovation is unique in that unlike most prison legal aid programmes that seek to sponsor lawyers or attach professional paralegals to the prisons; this one targets the beneficiaries themselves to be the drivers and the actors of the initiative. Thus the initiative achieves sustainability with minimal external support.
The innovation was triggered by many cases that were being brought to Kituo Cha Sheria about people who were in custody mainly because they lacked knowledge on the legal justice system and thus ended up staying in prison for longer than necessary or even for crimes they never committed. They did not have someone to advise them about their rights and the process in general. Hiring of lawyers was expensive and Kituo Cha Sheria did not have enough personnel hence the need to innovate the prison paralegal project.
Although the project was initiated by Kituo Cha Sheria, the prison authorities and the paralegals operate it with minimal technical support from Kituo Cha Sheria. The first stop for every prisoner entering the prison gates for the first time is usually the paralegal office (which is manned by the paralegals) whereby their case is looked into and advice given accordingly.
This innovation has not received resistance from the target group – the prisoners. Indeed if it were possible, they all want to be paralegals! However, the project has been slow to replicate since the prison authorities are firm believers of status quo and sometimes view the project with scepticism.
Shimo La Tewa is the best practice of this project and has run for the last five years and gets better every year. As a prototype, the initial idea was to target the prisons that have large numbers of inmates. It was realised that it was necessary to consider extending the project to women’s prisons although they do not hold as many inmates as the men prisons. Later on we encouraged the collective justice advocacy of issues affecting the prisoners which translates to developments in the legal system. A case in point is the landmark case on prisoners’ right to vote, the ongoing challenging of the death penalty and the discrimination by the sexual offenses act on the basis of gender.
The innovation could be perceived as taking over criminal lawyers work…but that aside this innovation could be the break-through for organisations that provide legal aid and have the mission to promote access to justice.
Initially the project was not funded and advocates volunteered their time and expertise to work with the paralegals until UNDP- Amkeni Wakenya came into the picture and provided a grant to capacity build the paralegals, equip the justice centre and initiate the process of replication of the project in two other prisons.
Monthly reports on the number of inmates given advice, appeals launched, applications made, letters submitted to the courts. We also track the number of acquittals, discharges and reduced sentences. Each paralegal has a record of the number of cases they have handled and their outcome. This number is used during the Prison Paralegal of The Year Award to appreciate the most hard-working paralegal in the prison.
The three prisons benefiting currently from this innovation host a population of about 5,000 inmates but this is just the beginning.
This innovation could be reflected in all 93 prisons in Kenya which host over 55,000 prisoners currently (this is the number in penal institutions including pre-trial detention). Since the project is confined within the prison environment, it has no potential aspect that could bring about cultural clash.
This project is institutionalized within the prison so it saves costs for accessing legal aid for prisoners and also minimising the operational costs of organisations/entities supporting such initiatives – mostly minimal technical assistance is needed.
This project is financially viable and sustainable since it blends in and becomes part of the numerous undertakings in the prisons – this is together with the vocational and formal education programmes run in all prisons in Kenya. The innovation has become one of such undertakings in the prisons.
Our project has been recognised by the President of the Supreme Court (The Chief Justice) of Kenya as one of the indicators of the fact that Kenya is moving towards the right direction in access to justice.
It is wise to have inmates serving longer sentences to serve as paralegals since the knowledge and skills required for this type of confined paralegalism is perfected with time.
Getting an acquittal is not an end to itself and therefore there should be a follow up after prison and integration programme for former prisoners back into society. This is a challenge we have been grappling with as supporters of this innovation.