Dullah Omar. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Dullah Omar, whose name has been given to the summer school set up to improve the training of paralegals in community-based advice centres, was the first justice minister of democratic SA. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

FOR thousands of South Africans, access to social justice comes from unheralded heroes: up to 300 community advice offices delivering basic services to poor and marginalised communities.

They assist with land claims, social grants, labour disputes, civil cases and even divorce. For many people, they deliver justice — which would usually be inaccessible in terms of both location and language.

Yet many of the paralegals who serve at these offices often do so with the most limited skills. Armed often only with passion and dedication, their services are basic.

But there is a growing movement to ensure that the paralegal profession is exactly that: a professional provider of services by skilled practitioners.

Since 1994, the community advice office sector has undergone a slow decline amid expectations that it was the government’s responsibility to deliver such services. Soon after the historic elections, the country was infused with widespread optimism that the human rights enshrined in the Constitution signalled changes in everyone’s prospects of life.

Instead, a lack of vigilance meant the gradual shutting down of advice offices in poor communities; very low morale among practitioners providing frontline services; the loss of seasoned practitioners, who left the sector by force of attrition or because of the movement to greener pastures; and a general lack of energy — all of which reduced the sector to a state of survivalism.

Those who remained were either there because of an undying commitment to the cause of paralegalism or because they had nowhere else to go.

Periodic funding droughts brought further pain to the sector. As the government struggled to expand access to social justice on its own, there were increasing demands for paralegal services. As the economic crunch intensified, labour and credit cases began to increase.

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CLEARLY, these communities are not able to access commercial lawyers to protect their rights as enshrined in the Constitution. Social solidarity has been eroded and the overriding legitimacy of political society created a state of paralysis and a false hope that somehow, one day, the state machinery and political parties would stand up for the common citizenry as envisioned in the founding statutes of the nation.

We now know that ensuring that the Constitution is translated into social justice on the ground requires much more to ensure a just society in which people increasingly exercise and claim their rights.

We now know that this will happen only when civil society teams up with other institutions — the state and private — to ensure access is promoted.

This week, as a result of such partnerships, more than 120 paralegals will descend on Durban for a week-long training programme that seeks to build the capacity of those employed in community advice offices.

It is a partnership between civil society organisations, the government and funders that promote the professionalisation of paralegal service providers. It is being driven by a focus to ensure the recognition, regulation and institutionalisation of the community advice office sector as an instrument for delivering frontline legal and general advice services to poor and marginalised communities.

The Dullah Omar Summer School is the primary tool for achieving this. A school for community-based paralegals, it was conceived as a capacity-building tool to advance an agenda of professionalising the sector by offering intensive learning activities that facilitate the sharing of experiences, formal accredited lectures and education modules from respected sector practitioners.

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MANY attending the Dullah Omar Summer School are bridging the gap between their work and increased professionalism. Take the training: several streams offer training that promotes an understanding of the systemic and structural factors that give rise to issues of poverty, development, human rights and social justice. Targeted courses examine subjects such as family law, estates, labour law, social security law, organisational development, conflict resolution, organising and activism.

We envisage a sector that is recognised and regulated, has a strong institutional framework, promotes the improvement of services through the adoption of norms and standards, and protects communities by ensuring that offices remain true to their character.

This requires the continuous implementation of programmes to build capacity and to remind practitioners and leaders of the social mandate and obligations of this sector to society.

If we do so, we can attract a new, younger cadre of paralegals committed to serving social justice. And, in so doing, we give life to former justice minister Dullah Omar’s vision of access to social justice for all — not just the rich.

• Kamtshe is CEO of the Association for Community Advice Offices of SA