How do paralegals build trust with the local community?

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How do paralegals build trust with the local community?

Please consider the following questions to help get this discussion topic started:

  • What are common factors or reasons that paralegals are able to build trust with other community members?
  • What methods have paralegals used to build trust with community leaders; village elders, etc?
  • How have paralegals built trust with lawyers, police, or judges (who may feel threatened by their work)?
  • How have paralegals built trust with communities who are from a different ethnic, caste, or religious groups?
  • What challenges have you noticed in building trust between paralegals and youth/children?
  • What challenges or barriers have you experienced in building trust between paralegals and communities?

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

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How can paralegals build trust within their communities?

Trust is a pre-requisite for paralegal work. Their work is community based, hence it is imperative that they can all the support they may need to discharge their mandate from relevant stakeholders within the communities. Community paralegals work with other child focused entities in the communities, the police, the deaprtment of social services and community leaders such as local authorities, and traditional leaders. 

It is easy for the paralegals to build trust with the above group because they come from the communities they work in. They are known by the people they work with. The negative side of that is when they are also into activism such as being aligned or associated with a particular political party. The repercussion of that is the organisation they may be representing ends up being associated with that particular political party; hence no matter how much you tell the leaders that you are apolitical, they may not accept that.So for the paralegals to establish trust, they are advised to be apolitical and to be guided by the principles of child protection such as non-discrimination, best interests of the child, child protection and child participation. The last one works very well in advocacy agendas; when the children speaks for themselves, the community leaders pay attention and will see the paralegals as really representing the interests of the group they represent.

With the other stakeholders such as the police and other important government departments, the paralegals are urged to involve them always in any intervention. For example, when facilitating the placement or reintergration of an abused child, a report would have been made to the police and the paralegal helps facilitate placement. In other words, the paralegal is only seen as facilitating child protection. 

Friction between local officials and paralegals

How do local officials/authorities such as elders, chiefs, police, etc react when paralegals begin resolving disputes? Although they are known in the community, it seems that sometimes it can cause friction when suddenly someone else is resolving disputes in the community that would ordinarily be resolved by traditional leaders. How have paralegals built trust in these situations when there is friction?

dealing with friction

The role of the paralegal should firstly be understodd to be facilitatory. They should rarely resolve disputes but should facilitate dispute resolution in communities. I will give the role of the prosecutor/lawyer in legal cases; they facilitate access to justice. But they are not judges. A paralegal re[presents the interests of the vulnerable in their communities; hence they ensure victim friendly services for eg an abused child-at the clinic, at the police, at court and in the community by linking the victim to the service provider and by also sensitising the service provider to the needs of the victim. In the example that you gave Christina, the traditional leaders remain the dispute 'resolver' but the paralegal provides a link for the disputing parties to the community justice system by ensuring that justice is done. She provides awareness on where to go with certain matters and what to expect at the court. She even helps with the process and refers the matter to the court. On the flip side, she has built a solid relationship with the traditional leader and made him aware of issues such as discrimination, processes/attitudes hindering access to justice and this can be done at even national level-that is when the advocacy campaign is aimed at change in attiude, policy, process or law.

Friction between traditional leaders and paralegals

I personally come from a community where traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution are still greatly practiced. in order to build a harmonious relationship between elders and paralegals, my organization embanked on training elders on understanding the formal justice system, discouraging bad cultural practices(compensations in case of rape, murders, Genital Mutilations etc.). we have emphasized to elders that while they can handle some disputes, there are those that are beyond them. community paralegals have also been trained on how traditional justice mechanisms work and how to relate with elders. These initiatives have been strengthened by out reach activities like community policing, information sessions, use of Music, Dance and Drama, use of Information, Education and Communication(IEC) materials to create awareness. While written Law is supreme in Uganda, formal courts still employ certain acceptable rules of traditional justice in dispute resolution. This has greatly encouraged elders to make case referrals to Formal authorities where a case is perceived to be beyond their jurisdiction. Elders are now allowing paralegals also to seat in sessions with them as advisers on what the formal justice says in certain matters. This kind of coordination has limited friction between elders and paralegals. However in situations where friction occurs, parties have been encouraged to dialog since each of them complement the other. They all know their limits as enshrined in the referral pathway we (partners) developed.

Tactics to change minds

Changing people's beliefs can be incredibly challenging and time consuming. Thank you, Akol, for sharing these great examples of how you've worked to strengthen the relationship between elders and paralegals. Last year, we hosted an online discussion titled Powerful Persuasion: Combating Traditional Practices that Violate Human Rights and similar examples were shared in that exchange. There may be some tactics from that discussion that would support the efforts of these community paralegals!

How have others in this discussion addressed these kinds of challenges, when there is friction between traditional leaders and paralegals?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Tactics to change minds

I agree with Akol. One way could be recording stories of survivors or victims and sharing with community leaders during sensitisation trainings. I however would want to hear more on community policing.

Tactics to change mind

Chinga thanks for your concern. your interest is in community policing. this is an out reach activity where we mobilize and accompany the police  to communities to sensitize locals on police work, formal procedures in case management, the community's roles and responsibilities among other issues. this is meant to bridge the gap between the police and the local communities. it should be noted that the relationship between communities in Uganda and the police is not healthy. in these activities, community paralegals coordinate the relationship between police and the local communities.

Adding a component of community policing to paralegal work

Thanks Cakol for the notes on community policing. I am also of the view that community policing can be part of the community paralegal work- they can work as 'police' in the community by empowering their communities on steps to take upon abuse, on being watchdogs of rights violations and (I got this idea yesterday from a community leaders training workshop I attended), helping their communities come up with community/local policies or a community constitution or needs assessment advocacy concept that they can use for lobbying their local authorities to improve service delivery or to highlight abuses of special groups in their areas.

Working with Elders

These are excellent points. Respectful and healthy relationships with elders are essential to buiding legitimacy and trust in communities.

I know of one paralegal organization in particular that has developed effective techniques for engaging cultural institutions and actors such as elders: the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN). In addition to handling cases, their paralegals help to arrange positive dialogues with elders and communities so they are well informed and empowered to handle human rights violations with strong cultural implications.

They've put together a very handy guide on their methods, which can be downloaded here:

How Paralegals build trust

Building trust is always a process. However, successful community paralegals in Uganda have so far managed to do this by employing positive case management techniques such as: having good communication skills, observing confidentiality, being honest, giving feed back, making appropriate referrals of clients to other authorities for better case management, following-up cases to their logical conclusions (even if referred to other authorities) and so on. These are just the few basics among others which have helped build trust between paralegals and community members in Uganda.

How paralegals build trust with the local community

Paralegals are people living in the community as such they are known to the community  and participate in day-to-day life of the community. In addition , the kind of work paralegals does  enable the community to seek them out when they have problems. For instance , paralegals are known to be  human rights defenders  hence in case of an issue they are contacted  and informed and hence are in a position to give prompt legal advice.


Training of Community Health Workers


Community mobilization by paralegals also provides avenue for building trust , in addition  when people come together and are sensitized on what they did not previously know, this becomes an eye opener and they will always seek the paralegal  either to ask further questions or to refer more cases.


Working with different   structures in the community also helps build trust .These includes working with village elders of whom the local area chief is core. In many instances cases at the community level are first reported to the chief because he or she is the government official closest to the community , other structures include the local area police , the children’s department at the local level among others. When these structures are aware of the work done by the  paralegal,  they form a close working relationship hence  cases are handled   effectively and efficiently.


Networking and coalition building with other organizations within where the paralegal operates and outside is also very important .This facilitates effective resource identification and  the resultant referral. A paralegal  may come across  a complicated case such as  incest , the child has to be rescued from the  family immediately,  the case has to be reported to the police , a   legal aid organization  to provide a lawyer has to identified as well as rescue for the victim while the case  is on-going .This calls for good networking skills  amongst paralegals .


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


Paralegals act as data banks of information .They not only  have knowledge and skills on legal issues but on human rights issues  generally. In addition ,  some paralegals during their course of training  undergo  dispute resolution training as was the case during my  training by Legal Resources Foundation Trust. These skills came in handily especially when handling  issues  for instance  empowering children on their rights while parents and guardians are not at the same level of awareness on rights. One needs to  empower both parties  so that they can be aware   of what is violation  of rights. For instance the Legal Notice of 2001 has outlawed corporal punishment in Kenyan schools, however, there have been cases reported in the media where teachers with some having broken limbs and in extreme cases death beat children. In such instances  this calls for  using  various skills in empowerment of these groups .For teachers ,  the best methods is incorporating  what the Kenyan laws and policies say on corporal punishment  as well as inclusion of chiefs  and education officers in these trainings  to enable better understanding  .

A  session with rural women  to interrogate their property rights as part of community based paralegalism


Information is power and many people wallow in injustice because they  of lack of information. Many approaches can be used to  balance  the power structures. Such include  sharing information in  the simplest way possible  such  printing of materials in local vernacular , using the media to  air  grievances on impact of  violations  such as   media coverage  on impact of  child labor on children  or  voices of children  on  corporal punishment.


Usage of  drama and poetry to communicate  legal messages  in a creative way is also appropriate .For instance poetry  on negativity of  sexual violence in the community   and the penalties of  sexual violence as contained  in the Sexual Offences Act  as for the case of Kenya ,parental responsibility towards child protection and so on can help reach out to many people  with information on rights  and responsibilities.


Paralegals  undertake property rights defense for women victims of property rights  violations through evictions  and dispossessions. Through defending rights, paralegals  tilt the power balances especially given that patriarchy  has deprived women of their  right to inherit property after the death of the husband.