Expanding Access to Justice through Community Paralegals

Paralegal at work

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, August 25, 2014 to Friday, August 29, 2014
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary Available

Thank you for joining the New Tactics online community for a conversation on Expanding Access to Justice through Community Paralegals from August 25 - 29, 2014.

For many communities access to justice represents a near impossibility because of cost, distance, lack of knowledge and the fear of reprisal.  Paralegals utilize rapport and trust to increase access to justice for their clients. Despite possessing knowledge and expertise in the legal field they engage in diverse responsibilities in their communities. They advise elders and community leaders, assist individuals find lodging in cases of domestic abuse and conduct fact finding for remedies to rights violations.  Participants in this conversation sought a clearer picture of:

  • Who is a paralegal?
  • How to motivate them and ensure they are effective advocates?
  • How they build trust within the communities they serve?
  • How they solve disputes with power imbalances?
  • How to seed their practices in other human rights sectors?

Additional Resource Practitioners

  • Leonida Odongo, Human Rights Advocate
  • Carolina Lopez,  Researcher and Investigator
  • Tegest Tesfaw, Bright Image for Generation Association
  • Felicia Mburu, International Human Rights Lawyer
  • Akol Ceasar Abura,  Refugee Law Project
  • Nandita Baruah, The Asia Foundation
  • Hani, ARDD-Legal Aid


Conversation Threads:

What are community paralegals and why are they important for protecting human rights?

Paralegals bridge the gap between the community and the justice system.  Building rapport and trust comes easily to most community paralegals because they normally come from the communities they serve. They inform individuals in their communities of rights and advocate for their needs.  Paralegals minimize the intimidating nature of the legal system by explaining basic legal procedures and court processes, helping to file emergency court order applications, accompanying vulnerable members to court and file police reports.  Paralegals document human rights violations and bring about remedies.  

They perform a variety of roles related to their legal advocacy. They may accompany children to legal processes, facilitate visitation rights for family members with a loved one in conflict with the law, provide psychosocial counseling, help with finding employment and advocate for the needs of their community. Likewise they use mediation and negotiation practices to protect the legal rights of clients.

Paralegals mitigate obstacles that often impede accessing justice mechanisms. They do not charge fees like lawyers. Yet, paralegal work depends on financial sustainability.  Some community leaders fear bringing paralegals into their community because of their potential temporal presence. They also worry they will not serve to build local capacities. There are generally more paralegals available than lawyers. They are not viewed as outsiders and speak about legal details in a way their clients understand.  

Paralegals conduct their work informally within most justice systems. Their informal status complicates their ability to coordinate with them. Disagreement exists over  advocating for their formal recognition . Opponents stress that recognition could impede paralegals to operate independently

On Sustainability: How do you motivate and maintain quality paralegals after the initial training has been completed?

Generating income for paralegals will improve retention and the quality of their advocacy. The struggle to generate consistent  income for paralegals  complicates their retention.  Being mindful of the economic needs of paralegals also involves appropriately meeting or reimbursing their expenses.  Strategies that generate income and considers occupational expenses retains paralegals. Women paralegals face increased economic challenges because of their responsibilities to their families.

Including paralegals in decision-making sustains paralegal interest. It signals that the organization supporting their legal advocacy values them and their perspective. Paralegals provide valuable input in identifying the challenges of communities while also sharing their expertise about the community they work with, and they collect success stories.

Training paralegals and improving accessibility to training, will sustain their interest and the effectiveness of their advocacy.  Providing continued and formal training opportunities motivates paralegals and increases the quality of their services. To satisfy this need formal education programs exist like the diploma programs offered by the Kenya School of Law. In spite of the existence of formal education programs many paralegals do not have access to them. Paralegals experience challenges that require training outside of their legal expertise. Equipping paralegals with knowledge in how power is implicated in class and gender inequities allows them to effectively pursue their work.  Paralegals also benefit from trainings in mediation approaches. Best practice for sustaining quality paralegals require conducting consistent reviews allowing paralegals to share the work they completed since their training.

How do paralegals build trust with the local community?

Paralegals normally come from the communities they serve.  Paralegals therefore possess the knowledge of issues, significant challenges to the community, and the cultural literacy to build rapport and trust with community members.  For example, former prisoners and survivors who become paralegals advocate effectively for their clients.  The paralegal advisory service in Malawi empowers prisoners who assisted paralegals during their detention become paralegals themselves.  As paralegals, these former prisoners advocate effectively for other prisoners by utilizing the rapport and trust they established. Similarly many women who have become paralegals are survivors of violence.  Encouraging former clients of paralegals or who have encountered the violence that paralegals seek to remedy increases the number of quality paralegals. These paralegals possess unique knowledge and abilities to empathize with clients.

Community paralegals effectively embed themselves in the community when they establish impartiality. If they are perceived to have political affiliations they compromise their relationships with clients.  An advocate advised that Paralegals sustain their impartiality by practicing the principles of child protection, evaluation of the best interests of the child and child participation.  Paralegals sustain their impartiality by  facilitating dispute resolution when conflicts arise as opposed to attempting to solve or negotiate conflicts. Elders in communities value impartiality. Establishing relationships with elders is critical; as power brokers they impact the effectiveness of a paralegal’s legal advocacy.  As allies they support the effectiveness of a community paralegal’s work.

Paralegal involvement with community projects establishes trust with community members such as community policing which increases ties with the community. Paralegals, when they work to bridge divisions between the police and local communities, generate credibility. Other community projects include, information sessions, use of music, dance, drama and disseminating educational materials.

Effective case management skills engender trust with clients.  Paralegals that utilize good communication skills, observe confidentiality, practice honesty, give good feedback and make appropriate referrals create effective relationships with clients.

How have paralegals resolved disputes where power balances exist between the parties involved?

Consistent engagement in conflict impacts paralegal impartiality. Paralegals need to carefully consider when and how they engage in conflict.  Resolving power imbalances requires training paralegals in conflict resolution.   Such areas include:

  • Rights violations
  • Protection of the rule of law

One method of conflict resolution is Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). It preserves the rights of populations at a heightened risk of violations. ADR upholds the dignity and equality of affected parties like children, women and the poor. It creates a safe space for the articulation of needs, equal access to information and ensuring parties are informed about their legal rights.

How can paralegal methods apply to human rights work in other sectors?

Paralegals can model effective practices to other human rights sectors with their adeptness in advocating for and informing clients of their rights and their ability to establish  rapport and trust.  Paralegals have employed their strengths in rights empowerment, rapport and relationship building into expanding access to justice for prisoners.  Paralegals engage with prison populations by providing legal training and advice clinics to support self-sufficiency.  The product of these efforts includes increased releases, reduction of sentencing periods, re-trials and acquittals.

Resource List:

Conversation Leaders

ChristinaW2's picture
Christina W
Reinventing The Rules
Namati's picture
Abigail Moy
Felicia Mburu's picture
Felicia Mburu
Chinga Govhati's picture
Chinga Govhati
Justice for Children
nandita's picture
Nandita Baruah
The Asia Fooundation
Shom Luitel's picture
Shom Luitel
People Forum for Human Rights(People Forum)
cakol's picture
Akol Ceasar Abura
Refugee Law Project
Preeti Thapa's picture
Preeti Thapa
The Asia Foundation