Bob and the legal information gap

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The Kibera slum in Nairobi is one of the biggest in the world. Estimations of the number of inhabitants range from 170.000 up to 1 million people living on one square mile. Whatever the exact numbers are, one thing is certain: the population is highly dense.

When I first visited Kibera, I immediately noticed the open sewage system. Its penetrating odour, mixed with the smell of the abundant heaps of garbage, is inescapable. This is what photos and video footage did not prepare me for. After one of the frequent rainfalls, the unpaved roads merge with waste of all sorts and turn into a messy mud pool. A trail of mud meanders across the small, tin roof shacks. These small houses provide a home to many families.

In this place, so I learned, people can come home one day and find all their belongings out on the street. Their lock on the front door replaced, or the roof removed from their house. It is a common way for landlords in Kibera to give notice. People know that if they come home to this, they have to go and find another place to live.

The odds of the extremely poor people who live here ever getting assisted by a lawyer are small. Despite the fact that there are some legal aid organizations that work here, there are too many people experiencing too many problems. There are too few lawyers to assist them and too little resources to facilitate them.

For a few years, however, there have been community paralegals in Kibera and in other Nairobi slums like Kamukunji. These paralegals consist of local men and women selected on the basis of their good standing. These paralegals are also the fixers, the people who get things done.

Meet Bob in this video. The video also introduces Richard (the principal of a girls’ school and also serves as a paralegal in Kibera) and Olando (one of the most dedicated legal aid lawyers in Nairobi):

Credits for this video go to @stefvermeulen and @jaapvtkruis.

Bob is one of the paralegals trained by Kituo Cha Sheria. He has been for more than three years now. He knows the basics of the law and the basic structure of the legal system. Bob knows which courts can help people with which problems. But, like most people all over the world, Bob and his colleague paralegals do not move legal problems to court. Bob supports people to solve most legal problems among themselves. It is no surprise that Bob enjoys the training in dispute resolution skills he occasionally receives (when there is funding, of course).

The people who come to Bob for advice and assistance with their legal problems have the same kinds of the problems that are most frequent all over the world. These are usually disputes within families over issues like maintenance payments or inheritance, between neighbours over plots of land, with landlords over increases of rent, or with employers when they are dismissed.

As becomes clear from their story, paralegals like Bob would like to have increased access to legal information. Information that tells their clients what they are entitled to and how they can get it. This kind of information would help the paralegals to inform the people who come to them what they can reasonably expect. Or what they can do to get what they want, and where they can go for further support.

The only legal information materials Bob and his colleagues have are printed resources with basic information they received during their training (the text of the Constitution, the most important statutes, the structure of the Kenyan courts system, human rights documents, etc.). Although important for creating basic awareness, this type of legal information is not actionable. It might inform them that under the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, women have a right to maintenance money for their children in case of separation, also for children born out of wedlock. But knowing this right does not help Bob to objectively establish a fair amount of maintenance money. Similarly, he might have learned that increasing the rent is not allowed without actual improvements of the house. This, however, does not tell them which improvements can reasonably result in which increases.

Information is the currency of justice. Legal information can bring neutrality in disputes. But only if it is sufficiently concrete, intuitive and understandable.

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