Engaging pro-bono lawyers and peer legal counselors for expanding access to justice

Story by Newtactics.org

Kituo Cha Sheria (Legal Advice Centre) in Kenya created a new model of access to justice when in addition to legal aid, took the approach of legal empowerment. It provides legal education to marginalized communities and to inmates in prisons through a model of Community and Prison Justice Centres to empower them to understand and advocate for their own rights. Within prisons, the legal education training is designed for inmates of all genders who face barriers in understanding their legal rights and protections, and to build their own self-sufficiency. The participating incarcerated individuals learn and pass on this knowledge to as many other inmates as possible.  As a result, Kituo Cha Sheria has spread to a group of over 6,500 trained inmates who have brought over 3,600 successful appeals resulting in releases, reduction of sentencing periods, re-trials and acquittals. Since 2012, Kituo Cha Sheria has been able to bring about 41 death row acquittals and 77 acquittals for individuals sentenced to life.

Prison Paralegals

When issues of poverty, marginalization, and vulnerability affect people’s rights to access justice, Kituo Cha Sheria steps in. Established in 1973 as a small group of legal professionals, Kituo Cha Sheria recognizes that legal services are still greatly needed in a country where the current ratio of legal practitioners to the population is 1: 5000.

Kituo Cha Sheria’s legal professionals provide pro-bono (free) legal aid and promote these services through volunteerism as a core value of its work. In Kituo Cha Sheria’s prison program, they engage pro-bono prison paralegals, staff members and volunteer advocates to train and help prisoners sort through their own cases. The inmates themselves then work to promote the rapid growth and spread of knowledge and empowerment to other inmates. This method is much quicker than waiting for only legal professionals to provide services.

The volunteer advocates are registered with Kituo Cha Sheria through a structure of volunteers who offer litigation services on a pro-bono basis for Kituo’s clientele. Rather than outright recruitment, willing advocates approach Kituo Cha Sheria to offer their services. They are required to fill in a volunteer advocates form including their name, law firm where they work, physical address, contact information and the specific legal field in which they would volunteer.  Following the training aid from legal professionals, the inmates themselves then work to promote the rapid growth and spread of legal knowledge and empowerment to other inmates.

Currently, Kituo Cha Sheria has established three Prison Justice Centres, available at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, the Shimo La Tewa Men’s Prison and Shimo La Tewa Women’s Prison in Mombasa. Kituo Cha Sheria expands the program to additional prisons as interest and resources allow.

Kituo Cha Sheria accepts people into their program only if they have expressed a strong interest in the program and have shown willingness to share what they learn with others. By taking on the most interested and willing, Kituo cha Sheria creates a streamlined system that allows them to reach as many individuals as possible. Prison staff are also a beneficiary of this program. Volunteer advocates don’t provide structured lessons, which would require more rigid scheduling and consume more time. Rather they provide:

  • Paralegal training including critical documents such as the Kenyan Constitution, parliamentary legislations, publications on criminal procedures, criminal justice systems, and evidence
  • Competitions to solicit opinions of inmates through essay writing
  • Practice through moot courts and debating – for advocacy on improving the criminal justice systems including topical issues such as death sentencing, interpretation of life sentences and its constitutionality, sentencing policies, bail/bond rules and guidelines, and addressing disparities to bring about uniformity and consistency in punishing and/or deterring crime
  • Assistance in understanding legal processes and the evidence against them including how to draft their appeals and how to represent themselves in court
  • Basic supplies such as stationery, computers and printers.

While it may appear basic to some, many of the poorest citizens have little understanding of critical documents, drafting legal documents, court procedures, self-representation, or the impact they can make during their incarceration.  After receiving professional guidance, prisoners feel confident enough to train fellow inmates, review their own cases to advocate in their own defense.

For example, in one case, Kituo Cha Sheria worked with several men on death row for a robbery that had ended in an accidental death. With the help of Kituo Cha Sheria, they were able to appeal their sentence. One of the men helped over 200 other inmates appeal their own cases and continues to do this work since his release from prison. And men are not the only ones benefitting. Thairu, a woman from Nairobi was falsely imprisoned for a violent crime, but remained in prison due to her inability to navigate the legal system. During her time in Langata Prison she was able to receive aid from Kituo Cha Sheria and has learned enough to appeal her own case and help educate others. Such inmates serve as tremendous role models. They are not able represent others, as they are not qualified lawyers, but they can provide legal education guidance.

The method utilized by Kituo Cha Sheria is much quicker than waiting for only legal professionals to provide services. And when lawyers are in short supply, Kituo Cha Sheria has a vast network of paralegals able to provide services even in rural areas, through their seven Community Justice Centres (one in Eastern Kenya; three in Nairobi; one in Nyanza; and two in the Coastal region). These paralegals do not represent clients in court, but offer legal advice and conduct trainings in their localities on legal and governance issues. These paralegals are readily accessible to their communities, they understand issues within their localities better, and are a cost effective way of accessing justice.

Kituo cha Sheria empowers individuals through building awareness of their rights and spreading legal education, so that all people will be able to access justice, enjoy and advocate for their own and their community’s rights effectively.

 

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