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

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

Welcome to the discussion! We want to start this discussion by describing what we mean by "community paralegals". Consider these questions below when sharing your comments in this discussion topic:

  1. Community paralegals play different roles and specialize in different skills depending on the context. Please share any innovations to the community paralegal model that you've seen. Could they serve as a model for others?
  2. Would community paralegals be more effective if governments formally recognized their roles as justice service providers? How have paralegals succeeded in gaining greater respect and recognition?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.

Expanding Access to Justice Through Community Paralegals!

Community paralegals play a very important, though usually under-estimated, role in bridging the gap between the formal and distant justice delivery system and the communities that are supposed to benefit from that formal system. In a nutshell, they 'informalise' the formal system for the benefit of communities they represent.

 

A paralegal is an person, who:

  • is either community-based or works within some organisation or structure
  • has basic knowledge of the law and its procedures
  • knows about conflict resolution procedures
  • has the necessary motivation, commitment, attitude and skills to help people and communities with their legal, human rights, administrative, constitutional and developmental problems, while at the same time empowering them to tackle these matters on their own in future.

Paralegals use their knowledge and experience to help people with legal and other problems. A paralegal may investigate and refer matters to lawyers or relevant bodies which can deal with them. Paralegals conduct educational workshops. A paralegal is accountable to the communities that they work in.

Paralegals are usually community-based people who are trained in basic legal skills, for example problem-solving, advice-giving and statement-taking, in order to serve their communities. There are lawyers who try to meet the needs and demands of communities. But there are things which make it difficult for people to get access to lawyers, particularly in rural areas. For example:

  • the cost of having a lawyer act for you
  • the shortage of lawyers who will work in rural areas
  • the shortage of lawyers who are prepared to work with communities to resolve problems
  • other communications problems, such as language and distance which make lawyers very inaccessible to the average person

We have been providing paralegal training to migrant workers and prisoners. Trained Paralegal refers the cases to Legal aid lawyers. We do not have formal licensing system and course on Paralegal, that why we have been using junior lawyers or recent law graduate to work as paralegal in our legal aid project. We have legal assistance scheme called Free Legal aid and Paralegal Service to migrant workers and prisoners. This approach is very fruitful because paralegal are fulfilling the gap between lawyer and client.

Yes, if legal system recognizes paralegal or government governments formally recognized their roles as justice service providers. But there should be some criteria if we allow them to work in formal legal system.

Shom Luitel

People Forum

Nepal

What role can they play?

Since they are trained in basic legal skills, they can,

  • give simple and basic legal advice to community members
  • refer community members to service providers in order to ensure access to all human rights
  • explain basic legal procedures and court processes and advice based on circumstances of a case
  • help fill in emergency court order applications such as maintenance or protection order applications
  • accompany vulnerable members to court for lodging of applications, to police stations to make police reports or make referrals for them.
Formalisation of paralegal services

It is the way to go and in Zimbabwe we would really need a lot of support for this idea to come to fruitition. Paralegals have so far been confined to the formal justice sector but there is a great need in the infomal justice system where they have not been really visible because of challenges of patriachy, interference and unacceptance. This is because the current legal system has not been recognising leagl representation or assistance for the litigants

I also think that there is need to formalise and ensure coordination of paralegal work for government to start recognising their valuable input into the justice delivery system.

Importance of community paralegals, their efficiency and success
  1. Community Paralegals help in closer monitoring, documenting and reporting Human Rights violations and abuses at grass root levels. they further offer first aid services to survivors of Human Rights abuses and violations in form of Legal counseling, psychosocial counseling, securing Police bonds and so on.
  2. Recognition by Governments may motivate Community Paralegals to work harder with confidence given that they may feel supported. this makes them own up their work because Governments would have given community Paralegals the mandate to provide justice related services to communities.
  3. Through successive negotiations, mediations, Police bonds and good practices, Community Paralegals have been recognized. Community Paralegals have also proved to be more accessible and cost effective probably because they are in most cases natives of their areas of operation. this has won them recognition.
Role played by community paralegals

Many  do not have in-depth knowledge of the  crimes they have been accused of  or the severity of their  charges , in addition , many have not interacted with the Penal Code .Paralegals are thus as source of the much needed legal aid  services to community members including sensitization of the contents of law related documents  such as  the Constitution, the Sexual Offences Act, the Children Act the Penal Code among other documents used by courts in determining cases in Kenya. There have also been incidences  where children  have been charged as adults  .In Kenya ,  the age of criminal liability is  from 8 years , there have been incidences where children younger than 8 years have been  charged  , or children  mixed with adults in police stations. These  acts go contrary to  international  conventions on  protection of rights of persons in custody of which Kenya is a signatory. Given their close contact with the community , it is  paralegals that can raise alarm on these vices.

 

Paralegals also play the role of human rights defenders. For instance  community-based paralegals that have been trained on refugee laws empower refugee community on their rights , where to access  basic services , how to contact the UNHCR in  a host country or how to   trace missing relatives. Many refugees report that they have been subjected  to illegal swoops. A case in point is the recent Usalama watch operations in  Nairobi’s Eastleigh – a predominantly  refugee  locality which was captured in many media houses.

 

Churches act as avenues where refugees  converge and can be a good space for community based paralegals to sensitize congregations on their rights. In addition, paralegals trained on  women property and inheritance rights play a major role in empowering communities on their legal rights,  defending women victims of property dispossession  and making follow ups on cases  of property rights abuse.

 

Are presents in Central America???
Hello, it's incredible, but large scale these forms of assistance are not known to me is the first time I heard and looking for some online I see that impact in parts of Guatemala, especially the issue of violence against women . Some projects supported by USAID. 
This only arise some concerns me. 
Suddenly he is or should be feasible to create local capacities, ie, from the idea to motivate in each country an advisory community (comprising local) that has two purposes, firstly advise communities and will be other mediating with the authorities. 
It does not become aid programs once the funding runs out, the help is over. 
In any case, the ultimate goal is to influence public policy. 
The problem of external financial aid is little guarantee of long-term continuity. 
They are nothing more than just ideas to start me come to know this idea.
 
 
Hola, es increible, pero en gran escala estas formas de ayuda no se conocen, para mí es la primera vez que lo escucho y buscando un poco en internet veo que tienen incidencia en algunas regiones de Guatemala, especialmente al tema de violencia contra la mujer. Algunos proyectos auspiciados por USAID.
Con ello solo me surgen algunas inquietudes.
De pronto es o debería ser más factible crear capacidades locales, es decir, a partir de esta idea motivar a que en cada país se tenga una comunidad asesora (compuesta por locales) que tenga dos propósitos, por un lado asesorar a las comunidades y por otro mediar ante las autoridades.
Que no se convierta en programas de ayuda que, una vez se acaban los fondos, se acabó la ayuda. 
En todo caso, que el fin último sea incidir en una política pública.
El problema de las ayudas financieras externas es la poca garantía de continuidad a largo plazo. 
Son solo ideas nada más que me surgen al iniciar a conocer esta idea.

 

Latin American Paralegals

Carolina, there are various forms of community paralegals active in Latin America, although they often go by different names. Sometimes they are called "facilitadores judicialies" or "promotores juridicos". We actually hosted a very interesting meeting of legal empowerment practitioners from across Latin America last year. The event brought together more than 20 organizations from 13 countries to learn from each other about the breadth of legal empowerment methods employed in the region. Many of them can be found on this map of our network members - we are still in the process of trying to map all the members of our network so that people like you can connect with others in your region. 

http://www.namati.org/network/organizations/

You also raised some of the challenges we discussed at this meeting, for example, sustainability and raising local capacity. A surprising amount of groups have been able to grow despite limited funds: some are supported by their communities with small contributions, and others are buoyed by sheer volunteerism. But we are trying to attract more funding to this sector - for example, by advocating for the inclusion of justice issues in the UN Millennium Development Goals, so that more development funding and support can go towards community paralegals who enhance access to justice. 

inclusion of justice issues in the MDGs Advocacy

That is a great strategy by Namati and one way of recognising paaralegal work at a global scale!

How is a community paralegal different?

These are all very thoughtful and revealing contributions. Thanks, everyone! Namati just put together a 4-page primer on community paralegals and how they are distinct from other forms of legal assistance. We also provide a few helpful case studies to help demonstrate what community paralegal work looks like on the ground. Take a look, here: http://bit.ly/1ARYQIp

Below is the introductory text, for quick browsing.

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 “Community paralegals,” also known as “grassroots legal advocates,” provide a bridge between the law and real life.  These paralegals are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy.  They form a dynamic, creative frontline that can engage formal and traditional institutions alike. 

Instead of treating their clients as victims requiring an expert service-- “I will solve this problem for you”-- community paralegals can focus on legal empowerment.  “We will solve this together, and when we’re done you will be in a stronger position to tackle problems like these in the future.”  

Community paralegals are different from conventional paralegals—their primary role is not to assist lawyers, but rather to work directly with the communities they serve.

But just as primary health workers are connected to doctors and hospitals, community paralegals should be connected to lawyers and the possibility of litigation or high-level advocacy if frontline methods fail.  

Community paralegal programs are diverse. Some take a holistic approach, addressing a range of justice needs; others focus on addressing a specific issue, like violence against women or protection of customary land rights.  Some paralegals serve a very local jurisdiction—a village, a neighborhood—as volunteers; others are paid staff who cover a much larger area—a chiefdom, say, or a district.  

How Community Paralegals Work
Community paralegals use several strategies to advance justice.  These include:

  • Public education to increase awareness of the law.
  • Advising clients on legal process, and options for pursuing remedies.
  • Assisting clients to navigate authorities and institutions.
  • Mediating disputes.
  • Organizing collective action.
  • Advocacy.
  • Fact Finding, investigations, and monitoring.

In exceptionally difficult or serious cases, a paralegal can seek the assistance of a lawyer, who in turn may resort to litigation or higher level advocacy.  Often, the credible threat of litigation can lead more powerful parties to participate in mediation or negotiation.

Advantages of This Approach
At their best, community paralegals can:

  • Promote empowerment by fostering legal awareness and agency of clients.
  • Provide tailored solutions to legal problems due to their creative strategies, range of skills and tools, and deep knowledge of local context.
  • Be more cost-effective and accessible than most lawyers.
  • Find solutions not only for individuals, but also entire communities.
  • Engage a wide range of institutions, including administrative agencies and customary authorities.
  • Prioritize a fair resolution rather than taking sides with only one party to a conflict.
     

 

Advocating for recognition of community paralegals

Thank you for the great advocacy/resource material!

In our context the community

In our context the community paralegal members were selected from the community through clear selection criteria. The most important criterias are how long the person lived in such community? Does he/she knows such community's culture, tradition, problem sloving tools etc very well? what looks like her/his acceptance, respect etc by the community? Her/ his social interaction like invlovement in midiation, in counseling, his/ her responsiveness, approach , accessiblity, dedication and commitment to the community, how much he/ he is multipurpose and influential. If they would be passed in this criteria and effectivley attended the training community paralegals are very helpful for thier community as well they are supportive even the govrnment legal system.  Because,

  • They could filtrate the cases at thier level and they are giving clear directions for the people, for instance, since they can distinguish criminal and civil cases they won't let the civil case to go to police, they don't allow negotiation in serious criminal cases. On the other hand, they are working on the cases those should be resolved in negotiation. They also assisting the judicial body in searching and providing of evidences as well as feeding important information.
  • In my experience, the community paralegals were playing a great role specially in resolution of dispute like, inheritance, marriage, parents and children disagreement etc. They attend court trails by accompanying especially women and children cases.
  • As community paralegals are living in the community nothing couldn't be hide from them so as they have access to reveal and bring before justice, various human right violations those are performing underground such as domestic violence, child and women trafficing, labor expoitation etc.
  • Additionally, since they are  role models in thier community, they  have better acceptance in order to educate the community.  
  • As they are serving in thier free will/ voluntarily,  the community respect and give them better recognition.  In my opinion if the government include paralegals in the justice system they will lose thier independent role.   
Thank you for participating in this conversation!

This has been such an interesting conversation on how community paralegals are expanding access to justice for communities around the world.  I can't thank you enough for participating in this discussion and thus creating such a great resource! I especially want to thank Christina Williams and Abigail Moy for facilitating this dialogue and engaging their network of practitioners to participate.

I hope you found it helpful to reflect on your own experiences as well as learn from the experiences of others as we discussed how paralegals: keep others motivated in this work, build trust with communities, resolve complicated disputes - and how this model could be applied to human rights work in other sectors. I hope you are taking away new ideas, perspectives and allies!

We will begin the process of writing a summary of the comments posted here. It will most likely be posted on the front page of this dialogue in November.

The conversation leaders committed to participate in this dialogue for these past 5 days. Although that commitment has come to end, you can still add comments until the summary is posted. So please feel free to continue to add your thoughts, reflections, resources and stories!

And finally, we'd appreciate your feedback on whether or not this experience has been helpful to you! Please take a moment to fill out this short survey to help us better understand the impact of these conversations.


Thank you!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

What are community paralegals and what role do they play

A community paralegal is  a community member  who has been empowered on legal rights  and who is able to transfer these  knowledge and skills to  community members. The roles of  paralegals include  sensitizing community members on their legal rights,  conducting referrals for services , simplification of legal terms to community members , reporting cases  of  rights violations  to relevant authorities such as local area chief, the police or village elders, making follow up on cases  and assisting in drafting  simple legal documents. Paralegals also undertake human rights  sensitization at the community level.

 

Having been trained as a paralegal by Legal Resources Foundation, my view is that paralegals’ relevance to protection of human rights includes the conscientization process amongst the general population on their rights. Many people are ignorant of their rights   and may have an attitude of either feeling helpless of feeling that even when they report an abuse no reprieve will be forthcoming, this is especially true of people who have reported cases to police and nothing has been done about their cases.

 

Many people   due to lack of information, are unaware of where to get the much-needed services. For instance many mothers I have come across who have issues with husbands especially on child support  or fathers have refused to pay school fees may lack information on where to report these cases or may lack the self confidence to articulate their issues. These are groups of people who are in dire need of   information and the services of paralegals.

 

In Kenya as in many countries the world over, the law is complex and may be a preserve of a few, furthermore is it presumed that ignorance of the law is no defense. This places many people in dilemma due to lack of understanding and the  difficult    terms used in law. Many people find these incomprehensible e.g. asking a newly widowed woman whether her husband died testate or intestate, unless someone simplifies these terms, the widow may not understand, the case is complicated further is the widow is illiterate.

 

Courts, especially in rural areas in Kenya are far apart; this further compounds the process of accessing justice. Many people give up in the process when they imagine the trips they have to make to courts, the transport costs, the cost of hiring a lawyer and in some cases after travelling many kilometers the client is told that the case has been adjourned and a later date given.

 

Cultural factors inhibit access to justice, in some Kenyan communities especially in northern Kenya region, cases are decided on by elders, either sheep or goats is paid off to the victims family. Nobody really cares what the victim is going through   or whether he or she will ever heal if it’s a case of rape or defilement for instance. This calls for availability of community based paralegals that are able to amplify the voices of victims of such injustice. Many  legal injustices still abound in many Kenyan communities over 50 years after independence.

 

Legal processes are tiring, from when a case commences to completion may take years , the client may even die before the case is concluded. The client needs someone to be there for him or her, to reassure him or her that eventually they will get justice. Within courts, other challenges also exist, a file may go missing, a witness may withdraw from    giving their testimony or may be intimidated by the offender or the offender may cite lack of confidence in the court hence the case starting afresh. All these are challenges that call for community based paralegals to empower community members on their legal rights and act as the much-needed psychosocial buffer for the affected clients.

 

When a  loved one or a family member is in custody, the affected family goes through a lot of stress. In some cases they are unable to visit the member in custody  as frequently as  they may wish. Some  offenders  may be  remanded in urban areas whereas their family members are in the rural areas and may not have the transport to make frequent visits. Paralegals  conduct  prison and court visits and gives updates  of  pre-trial detainees to their family members. They thus help bridge the contact between  the community and the remandee behind  prison walls.

 

Despite the Constitutional provision that every person has a right to legal support  and the right to be informed about  the charges before them, the challenge is  the number of lawyers willing to provide pro-bono services. Rates of crime in Kenya  are  going high ,  some  indulge in crime as a result of peer pressure, and rebellion, poverty at home and lack of positive role models .Many young people find themselves on the wrong side of the law as “state guests”. At the point of arrest, some  suspects may be too intimidated hence make confessions.