“Most of our people do not know anything about criminal law procedure. They do not know they have rights,” said Idiris Abdi Mohamed, who leads a unique team of legally trained officers providing support to ordinary people caught up in the justice system in Somaliland.
The team of paralegals led by Idiris are working to empower some of the most vulnerable adults and children with an understanding of how criminal law works, so that they can better navigate the complex system and also represent themselves more effectively in court. The paralegals project is run by the NGO, Horizon Institute, which aims to improve access to justice.
Idiris and his team are involved in providing legal support for cases in courts in Hargeisa, Wajale, Baligubadle, Borama, Bura’o, Gar-adag and Aynabo.
Through their work, they have succeeded over the past month in helping 126 individuals, including 37 minors, to regain their freedom after being charged in the criminal courts and held on remand.
For most people, Idiris says, the court process is alien. Those who do not have access to legal representation are likely to receive unfair judicial settlements.
Horizon Institute is currently providing free legal support to 200 people in courts across Somaliland, in cases involving charges of rape, public nuisance and insecurity, theft, debt defaulting, as well as land disputes.
An important function of the paralegals is to monitor the proceedings of court cases from start to finish, to see if the defendants’ rights were upheld and that the procedures were just.
Horizon Institute is running two legal aid offices in Hargeisa and Burao towns. The team also visits police stations, jails and courts in Somaliland to meet with defendants and offer support.
Idiris and colleagues interview defendants about their cases and give help in hiring a lawyer to represent them in court to those who cannot afford legal fees. They also cover transport costs to and from court until the case concludes.
Since the project started, they have secured the dismissal of 497 criminal cases including theft, affray in IDP camps, robbery, and land disputes against IDPs, children, and pastoralists.
Research conducted by Horizon Institute showed that IDPs, pastoralists, and minors lacked understanding of court processes. The paralegals have responded by holding legal aid clinics in IDP camps and villages, where they instruct and advise citizens on the basics of criminal law and procedure, their rights, how to defend themselves, how to access bail, and how to appeal against convictions.