Simeon Koroma Interview
The Harvard Human Rights Journal is proud to feature its interview with Simeon Koroma, the Co-Founder and Director of Timap for Justice, an organization that provides legal services to indigents in Sierra Leone through a community-based, mediation-focused model. In this interview, Koroma discusses the origin of Timap and the challenges of operating a legal aid organization within the dynamics of Sierra Leone’s society.
Interviewer: Lynnette Miner, J.D. ‘14
Tell us about the work that Timap for Justice does.
Timap provides basic justice services to indigents and people in rural communities through a frontline of community-based paralegals who are backed up by lawyers. It’s an experimental effort. Everything we do is experimental because we believe that there is so much to do in Sierra Leone. [We are] generalists, so the kind of problems that come to our offices shape the kinds of solutions we find.
Paralegals are flexible, so they employ a wide range of tools, including mediation, advocacy, providing information, and organizing community members to provide collective action. They use these different tools to solve a wide range of justice issues. For example, a woman comes to the office and complains that her husband is refusing to pay maintenance allowances for her child. The paralegals will provide information on rights and procedures and, if necessary, conduct a mediation between the parties to have an agreement. Or a community comes in and says their kids can’t go to school because the teachers are engaging in mining. The paralegals will do a lot of things, including engaging the different parties (like Ministry officials, parents, teachers, etc.) to have a community dialogue meeting – some kind of a dialogue where all parties will come to discuss where the problems are. At every stage paralegals act as facilitators, and they are able to facilitate some sort of dialogue in the community to find a solution which is local, which is practical, and which is flexible.
Can you tell us what inspired you to start this organization and where the vision for it came from?
In the beginning, most of [the problems] we have now were probably still present then. We were just from a civil war. There was injustice, as we still have in Sierra Leone. After the war and soon after the war, we had so much destruction of not just life but also property. State institutions were dysfunctional and many people were struggling for everything.
I was just from law school and I was working for a huge law firm. Most of my work was corporate practice. Most of our clients in this law firm were employers and big companies. Even though there was good pay, the work wasn’t that satisfying. I wanted to do something different, something for people who were disadvantaged.
In 2003, I started volunteering for an NGO that worked with children. I provided pro bono legal services to more than 100 street kids. After the war, we had so many street kids because they had no parents at all. They were sleeping on the streets and then picked on by police officers and others, so there were so many abuses. I represented them in court for free, and it was then that I started realizing what I wanted to do.
That same year I got a call from one of my senior lawyer colleagues who mentioned to me that he was thinking about some sort of a program to provide services. With this American colleague, Vivek Maru, who was then an Open Society Justice Initiative Fellow in Sierra Leone, I sat down and we started thinking through all the different problems. We started thinking through questions like: What kind of services would suit a country like Sierra Leone? What can you possibly do to make a difference? Sierra Leone has very few lawyers, we have dysfunctional institutions, and many things were not working well. Then we came up with this idea of training non-lawyers to provide some kinds of services.
The inspiration for this work came from South Africa, a place I’m so interested in, especially the apartheid struggle and all the injustices during that time. So there was one choice we really had to make: to go to South Africa and stay there for a while to understand their programs and see whether we could replicate them here. We spent some time there and spoke to some good friends, including David McQuoid-Mason, who is probably the champion of paralegal services in Africa. We visited different paralegal programs, organizations, and clinics, and that was really where the inspiration for work like this came from. We came back from South Africa, and we understood clearly at that stage that South Africa was different from Sierra Leone, and that we would need to come up with something that was different from what you’d find anywhere else. So that’s really how this service started.
How do different groups such as the police, local chiefs, and community members respond to Timap’s presence?
I would say it’s mixed. Timap is experimental – it’s a story. That means no matter how sweet it is we have those very difficult situations and some of those situations are dealing with external parties, including formal authorities or customary authorities. Because Sierra Leone has a dualist system, this means both the formal authorities (including the police, justice officials, and prison officers) are important but so too are customary institutions (like chiefs, headmen, and secret society leaders). Our approach has been incremental and certainly engaging.
An important structure we’ve built over the years has been the institution of Community Oversight Boards (COBs). From the very beginning, we realized that if Timap was to make any impact on the community, we needed to make the organization itself community-based and community-owned. These are very important components of our work, so we ensure that people view Timap as their organization and [feel that] their input is really valued. The COB members are members of the community and leaders of the community. They consist of a representative from the Chiefdom Council, a representative from a women’s organization like the secret society, a representative from the youths, and then somebody who is respectable in the community. Having these four people per chiefdom playing this role of intermediaries between the organization and the community is so important for us.
The COBs play a dual role. On the one hand they act as a cushion between the organization and the community. Whenever we have issues, especially with the leaders [of a community], we go to the COBs to play this intermediary role. But then they are also the eyes and ears of the organization in the sense that they are able to direct the organization’s focus in a particular community. They are able to answer questions like: Are we giving services in a proper way? Are paralegals treating clients professionally?
It’s mixed in terms of how these institutions – formal and informal – view Timap, but to a very large extent we have found cooperation and engaging them to be so rewarding. In almost all the offices we have a very good working relationship not just with formal authorities but also with informal authorities because of our continued engagement either by inviting them to trainings or inviting them to our offices or inviting them to give speeches or statements whenever we have community dialogue meetings.
How does Timap manage to succeed in tricky situations where paralegals essentially have to tell authorities how to do their job (for example, when a corrupt police officer tries to charge bail when bail is free)?
In addition to using COB members, one key area of our work is straddling the formal and informal justice systems. We engage both regularly because we understand both are problematic. So the example you gave of police officers asking for money for bail or bribes – this example is very common to most of our offices.
What do we do when we engage them? We know that we can use the formal system to trump the informal system. So we can go to a chief and say, “You fined these parties this amount and you shouldn’t have done that, so we’re asking you to stop this practice or to rescind the fine.” He can decide to say “Yes” or “No,” but we always can say, “If you say no, there is a law that says you shouldn’t do this, and we can take that up [as a case]. But for now we don’t want to, and we don’t want you to appear small in your community, so can you rescind this? So it’s with you, not with us. You can fix this.” That approach has been good because chiefs have felt that we are not humiliating them and that in fact we’re giving them a second chance to right those wrongs they’re doing every day.
For formal authorities, in the same way, there are these mechanisms for complaints. They’re not very effective though, which is why Timap’s litigation comes in. Timap uses litigation sparingly and strategically, so for those situations where say a paralegal cannot get a solution on her own because the particular police officer is continuing to ask for bribes for bail, we can bring that matter to court. That is if we choose to. We always have litigation to add teeth to our paralegals’ efforts. Where they fail, we the lawyers can come in. That’s how we get formal and informal authorities to somehow comply and cooperate with what Timap does.
What are the biggest obstacles for Timap’s work?
The lack of structure. . . . Paralegals aren’t really recognized in Sierra Leone. If you’re not recognized as such or if there is no law that allows you to operate, it means what we do is based on the good faith of the formal authorities. You could have police officers who could refuse paralegals access to the cells and [the paralegal] would have to go around and talk to the Head of Police and try to get him to understand. That’s a huge concern.
The good news is we have this Legal Aid Act which has just been passed. We know implementation will be a problem. But if implementation is successful, or just [by] having the Act itself, which for the very first time has recognized paralegals, our hope is that our work and our paralegals’ work will be even more recognized by the state and that there will be some sort of legitimacy. There would be an institutional framework and definitely some legal framework to operate under.
The lack of that before now was a serious impediment but again there are other restrictions. Those restrictions are external so mostly you’d like to do a lot more but you have funding limitations and funding limitations particularly inhibit the kinds of activities you undertake. Despite the obstacles, there is [a] drive by Timap to become more visible in many of these communities, which is why we have steadily been expanding to other parts of the country, considering we started in 2004 with just five offices and now we have 19 offices. It’s been a long road but we’ve used our little successes in different places to build on the confidence of those communities and go to other communities and that’s been a very good approach.
What are the most pressing justice-related issues affecting people across the country?
I would divide these into two. You have those individual-level problems, which in many of the places include sexual- and gender-based violence (these are really common), and then you have [child and wife] maintenance issues. These are all on the individual level. Then you have community-level problems – just the failure of the State to provide basic amenities. In many places people don’t go to school, or there are no oversight mechanisms for state institutions like the police, the prisons, the courts. It’s a lot. It’s so hard to pinpoint a particular problem in Sierra Leone.
There are many cases that are on the rise. In Timap the most common are simple thefts . . . . On an average month you have at least 300 people arrested in the four large police stations we work with just for larceny or simple theft. Most of them are less than 25 years old. That’s a huge issue, but most of these offenses are also linked with the war. You have many people living in big cities where they have no families and things are difficult and they think the only way to survive is to steal. You have the history of violence, especially violence against women and violence against girls, so in many communities these are [still] serious issues as well.
In Sierra Leone there are these different justice issues, but there is a lack of some sort of comprehensive approach towards getting these issues resolved. There is a lack of some sort of umbrella body to coordinate all these different efforts across the country. So you find Timap doing a good job somewhere, but Timap can’t cover the entire country. Almost every day I get a request from a Paramount Chief to start operating in their community. I can’t just say “Alright.” I would love to go everywhere in Sierra Leone but there are many considerations. It shows that people yearn for services like these but they just don’t have them. We would love to provide them but there needs to be more coordination and Timap would love to [be a part of] that.
In fact since 2010 we’ve been working with other organizations, providing mentoring to them in places where we are not working. What we’re hoping to do is scale up our services in an incremental way without necessarily being [at every location]. Timap trains these organizations and sends our paralegals to them to provide mentoring and supervision to paralegals of those organizations, which then allows them to provide the kinds of services we do in places where we are not operating. We are hoping that something like this can continue so that somehow we will have these services everywhere.
Can you tell us more about your major goals for Timap’s future?
At a national level we would love to see, and we’ve started taking steps to achieve, recognition of paralegal services in Sierra Leone. That’s really one huge goal. In the future we want to see paralegals recognized in Sierra Leone as important service providers, and we want the model of Timap – a frontline of paralegals backed up by a small group of lawyers – to be scaled up as a [government] priority. At the moment it’s part of the government’s strategy, but we want government and other partners to make this a reality so Timap’s services can be scaled up. A future goal is having recognition for Timap and having our services expanded to other parts of the country where we are not.
We are expecting government to play a key role in recognizing the work of paralegals. That would be through A) legislation, and B) policies like providing access to people who are providing services like this, where you would have paralegals working for the State in the form of a Legal Aid Board, for example. So they would be employed by a Legal Aid Board [as] paralegals who are working in different communities. So the type of recognition we’re looking at is through legislation and then through the setting up of an umbrella organization like a Legal Aid Board which then coordinates all different legal aid services which would include legal advice, legal assistance, [and] legal representation . . . .
That support would not mean that paralegals would have to lose their independence. That’s something that we want to preserve. We believe that there can be government support through an institution like a Legal Aid Board that is independent so that there is no interference in the way paralegals carry out their functions. If government takes that over, we know clearly that then paralegals’ independence would be compromised . . . .
We think [this is] really important so that everywhere in Sierra Leone there is at least some effort to provide some sort of paralegal service so people have somewhere to go. In very rural areas in communities without Timap, for example, one would wonder where people would go if they had issues relating to justice. Going forward, we’re really hoping to get recognition for paralegals, and then to get government to scale up Timap-like services in the rest of the country. We don’t necessarily have to expand to the rest of the country. We don’t have those ambitions. We want to work with different partners, especially people already working in different parts of the country where we are not operating to be able to adapt to the extent possible our methodology.
For more information about Timap for Justice, please visit their website: http://www.timapforjustice.org/.