On any dewy morning in Sierra Leone, one can quite easily find a bustling street with traders and smiling children, flashes of colour from the rainbow-coloured dresses darting in and out of view, verdant hills stretching far into the distance beyond.
The colour and smiles however, conceal a sadder truth. With some of the worst prisons in Africa, a stagnant court system, a police service averse to checks and balances, lack of accessible legal representation and endemic corruption, human rights and justice are high priorities for Sierra Leone.
Contributing in its own targeted and effective way is Timap, an independent Sierra Leonean paralegal organisation which aims to bring justice, advocacy and conflict-resolution services to poor and marginalised communities, and one of the partners we worked with as part of the Umubano Justice Project.
“Before Timap, people who didn’t have money to sue the chiefs or court resorted to either fighting or swearing or sorcery as a way of investigating or satisfying their desire to seek justice”.
“We used to lock up children who were causing problems for up to three days in our prisons, but now Timap tells us not to do so”, a Chief Police Officer has informed us.
Operating through 13 field offices around the country, Timap’s paralegals use legal skills such as mediation, advocacy, education, organisation and litigation- to represent a client’s needs.
Dealing with a multitude of cases (a paralegal may have some 30 cases ongoing at any one time) involving those detained by the police, domestic violence, disputes over payment of monies and other contractual arrangements, inheritance and wills disputes, challenges over land tenure, forced marriages, child abuse and secret society issues, Timap’s 4-year record of successful representation is admirable. The majority of the conflict is resolved through mediation which brings both parties together before an impartial mediator to reach a compromise.
Our Justice Team – made up of UK Barristers and Solicitors – delivered training to 50 paralegals on legal and professional skills from advising clients, drafting written arguments and mediating disputes. Our sessions were interactive, full of debate and a rich learning experience for all of us. Sierra Leone’s use of English Law also meant that we had a lot of knowledge in common.
“Timap is the voice of the voiceless” were the words of one client in the Tonkolili District, about the assistance he received from Timap. Indeed, these brave Paralegals who are standing up to abusive authority and for individual rights were an inspiration for us.