On the 23rd to the 25th of February 2015, Professor Dane Ally and Mrs Van Coller, of the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), conducted the first National Conference on the Promotion of Paralegals in South Africa. The conference inter alia, tackled the challenges paralegals are faced with. The purpose of the conference was to promote paralegals in South Africa.
TUT is the first institution in South Africa which introduced the study of Paralegalism. The course/ study offer about 20 law modules including Legal Research and Writing. Many institutions later followed to offer the course. However; TUT is still the only institution in South Africa that participates in the African Moot Court with paralegals. This year was the 24th Annual African Moot Court Competition, and from the past, TUT has been the only institution participating in the African Moot Court with paralegals.
During the conference Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery raised some crucial questions which most have failed to answer. He asked the following questions while delivering his speech;
1. Who is a paralegal?
2. Is a person who might have a formal qualification, but is doing invaluable work within a community a paralegal or not?
Paralegals are often mistaken for many things which they are not. There are categories of paralegals however the most common paralegals are community based paralegals.
Categories of Paralegals:
- Paralegals in formalised category:
Paralegals in this category work in private law firms, Trade Unions or government departments.
In this category the paralegals duty is to serve the needs of the agency (employment) they work for and not the general public.
- Paralegals who serve the public through their work in legal structures (but not the structures of the above category)
In this category the paralegals provide valuable client interface and support services to public lawyers.
- Paralegals that do NGO work and operate sui generis in South African landscape to advance social security on a quasi-legal frontier and overwhelmingly rely on paralegals.
- Paralegals who work more autonomously in organisations or arrangements that are primarily about paralegal services per se and wherein paralegals take up and resolve matters themselves, and they only refer to lawyers as a last resort when litigation is necessary.
In all these categories any paralegal is fit to work due to the quality of education and training. The study inter alia provides paralegals to do research based on any legal topic and the research is not only limited to South African law but students can also do research on the laws of other countries as well.
The Deputy Minister also raised the issue of accountability of paralegals in South Africa. How are paralegals going to be held accountable for the work they do and who will hold them accountable and ensure compliance thereof?
The Deputy Minister concluded by stating that “Every single paralegal in our country is able to better the human condition of others. They are skilled and able to assist in human rights struggles within their communities. They can make justice a reality”.
Most qualified paralegals in South Africa are unemployed or are working in positions that have nothing to do with their qualification. And this is because of the lack of recognition of paralegals in our country. The earlier mentioned conference was a starting point to promote the recognition of paralegals in South Africa. It is about 10 months now after the conference and things are as if there was never such a conference. Paralegals must not only be recognised during conferences for they are professionals and like any other profession, need to be recognised and respected by all.
Failure to promote the recognition of Paralegals in our country will result in the continuation of the degradation of paralegals.
My plea is for all the spheres of our legal system to support paralegals and promote paralegals in any way possible, so that they can be able to function properly and continue to make our country a better place.
(Former Paralegal Student at Tshwane University of Technology)