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

Kituo cha Sheria Staff is engaging Prison paralegals at a legal aid clinic at Shimo La Tewa Women Prison in Mombasa

Kituo Cha Sheria (Legal Advice Centre) helps to empower prisoners to advocate for themselves by providing legal education in Kenyan prisons.

Issues of poverty, marginalization, and vulnerability affect people’s access to justice. Kituo Cha Sheria, founded in 1973 by a small group of legal professionals, works to combat this lack of access by providing free education to the most marginalized communities, particularly prison inmates. In Kenya, the ratio of legal practitioners to the population is 1 to 5,000, so these services are desperately needed.

Volunteering, a flexible lesson structure, and peer counseling are keys to Kituo Cha Sheria’s work. Lawyers, paralegals, staff members, and other volunteer advocates work pro-bono (free) to provide education and advice. Kituo Cha Sheria does not actively recruit legal professionals to be volunteers, but rather waits for willing advocates to approach and offer their services. These volunteers then register by providing some information, including their name, the law firm where they work, their physical address, their contact information, and the specific legal field in which they would prefer to volunteer. This information allows Kituo Cha Sheria to make the best use of the talents and expertise of their volunteers.

Kituo Cha Sheria does not offer structured lessons, because the rigid scheduling and large time commitment of such lessons is prohibitive for the population the organization is trying to reach. Rather, they offer flexible training and activities that provide legal knowledge but do not require a large amount of time to complete. Some of the services they provide to inmates include:

  • 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.

At present, Kituo Cha Sheria has established three Prison Justice Centres. The first is at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, the second at the Shimo La Tewa Men’s Prison in Mombasa, and the third at the Shimo La Tewa Women’s Prison, also in Mombasa. Kituo Cha Sheria plans to expand the program to additional prisons as interest and resources allow.

At first, many of the inmates have little understanding of critical legal documents, drafting legal documents, court procedures, self-representation, or the impact they can make during their incarceration and trial.  After receiving professional guidance, many prisoners feel confident enough review their own cases and advocate in their own defense.

Kituo Cha Sheria accepts inmates into their program only if they have expressed strong interest and have shown willingness to share what they learn with others, because a key component of the education program is peer counseling. Following the training from legal professionals, the inmates themselves then work to educate their fellow prisoners about the legal process. This peer counseling promotes the rapid growth and spread of legal knowledge and empowerment to other inmates. It is a much faster method than waiting for legal professionals to provide services to everyone because there is such a shortage of these professionals in Kenya. Trained inmates are not able to represent others in court because they are not qualified lawyers, but they can provide legal education and guidance and serve as tremendous role models.

Kituo Cha Sheria has been very successful with its legal education program in prisons. Since the program began, it has trained over 6,500 inmates who have brought over 3,600 successful appeals resulting in releases, reductions in sentences, retrials and acquittals. Since only 2012, the organization has brought about acquittals for 41 inmates on death row and 77 inmates serving life sentences.

For example, in one case, Kituo Cha Sheria worked with several men who were 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 sentences. One of the men helped over 200 other inmates appeal their own cases and has continued to volunteer as a legal educator since his release from prison. In another case, Thairu, a woman from Nairobi, was falsely imprisoned for a violent crime. Despite her innocence, she remained incarcerated due to her inability to navigate the legal system. During her time in prison she received aid from Kituo Cha Sheria, learned enough to appeal her own case, and continued to help educate others.

Kituo Cha Sheria does not only provide legal education and counseling in prisons. The organization also has seven Community Justice Centres (one in Eastern Kenya, three in Nairobi, one in Nyanza, and two in the Coastal region). These centers host a vast network of paralegals that provides services in rural areas of Kenya. These paralegals do not represent clients in court, but offer legal advice and conduct trainings in their localities on legal and governance issues. Because they are located within specific districts, these paralegals are easily accessible by community members and have a better understanding of issues specific to their localities. They are also a cost-effective means of promoting justice. Through this and their prison program, Kituo Cha Sheria empowers individuals by building awareness of their rights and spreading legal education. The organization works so that all people will be able to access justice and effectively advocate for their rights and the rights of those around them.

Photo Source:  Kituo Cha Sheria Staff work with prison paralegals at a legal aid clinic at Shimo La Tewa Women's Prison in Mombasa

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

Kituo Cha Sheria is an excellent example of an organization that makes the most of scarce resources. If legal professionals tried to educate every inmate in Kenya’s prisons, they would never finish because there are simply not enough legal professionals. However, by training inmates and empowering them to share their knowledge with others, Kituo Cha Sheria greatly magnifies its impact. Other organizations, specifically those that offer some kind of education or training, can consider this approach, in which former program participants become educators themselves. This tactic has the benefit of being cost-effective and also increases participant engagement. Activists should ensure, however, that the new educators are effective teachers and have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter. Some kind of test or interview process may be necessary.