Conversations with myself: When I grow up, I want to be a Community Paralegal

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I’m thinking of becoming a Community Paralegal. Why, I hear you asking?

Paralegals who are less expensive and more accessible than lawyers are able to empower the poor and marginalised in their interactions with Police, Prosecutors and the Courts.

Paralegals are able to deliver a critical service, particularly in the early stages of the criminal justice process. They are able to provide primary legal aid services which no one else is providing, which, in turn, can eliminate unnecessary pre-trial detention, the speedy processing of cases, diversion of young offenders, and reduce case backlogs.

Paralegals can play a valuable role in reducing prison overcrowding by locating the family members of pre-trial detainees and facilitating bail hearings.

AT THE POLICE STATION:
Using their knowledge of the law and the circumstances of their client, Paralegals can identify individuals who are eligible and suitable for release from the Police Station, and assist them accordingly. In doing so, they gather and provide information to the Police about whether those arrested fulfil legal criteria for pre-trial release.

Paralegals who work at Police Stations can assist in verifying the identities and location of relatives and others who may assist the one arrested. The regular presence of a Paralegal at a Police Station is also likely to moderate any tendency of Police Officers to mistreat those arrested or to demand a bribe. Police Stations are also the most effective points for identifying and diverting juvenile suspects who might otherwise be classified and processed as adults.

AT COURT:
A trained Paralegal who has interviewed an unrepresented detainee before a court hearing is able to advise the person being detained about the right to apply for bail (if applicable) and to gather facts that are relevant to such an application, i.e. the names of relatives who may be able to raise bail or act as sureties. Paralegals may even speak for those arrested at pre-trial hearings or be allowed to speak for an indigent defendant on matters of bail.

Paralegals can improve the quality of self-representation among defendants, especially during the pre-trial phase of the criminal justice process. This can be done through awareness raising and education on self-representation, demystifying the court process through role playing on what to expect in court, and providing guidance on the bail process and the grounds on which judicial officers typically base their pre-trial release/detention decisions.

This could result in accused persons becoming more active players and partners in the administration of justice, resulting in more successful bail applications at court.

AT PRISON:
Where the accused has not been given or offered bail and are in pre-trial detention awaiting the next court hearing, Paralegals can assist them in preparing and lodging bail applications. Paralegals who work in prisons can either train prisoners individually or offer group workshops in preparing bail applications, court procedures in general, court etiquette and other options for getting representation by a lawyer for themselves.

In addition to this advisory service, Paralegals can also search for relatives of those detained to inform them of where the detained person is and to establish who will be able to assist the detainee in being released on bail.

As part of their prison-based work, Paralegals could also identify pre-trial detainees whose warrants of arrest have expired, who have been in pre-trial detention longer than the statutory maximum allowed, who wish to plead guilty and those who are terminally ill. The Paralegals can bring these detainees to the attention of the relevant Investigating Officers, Prosecutors and Magistrates.

Paralegals can play an increasingly important role in enhancing access to justice for accused persons and criminal suspects.

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