Community Based Paralegals Are Empowering the Poor Across the Globe

The UN estimates that 4 billion people worldwide live outside the protection of the law. These people can be driven from their land, intimidated by violence, and excluded from society. 

paralegals helping the poor

Paralegals and the Legal Empowerment of the Poor

Community-based paralegals offer unique skills and professional characteristics that enhance efforts to improve justice for the poor. Similar to the gap that rural public health workers fill in relation to doctors, paralegals provide a dynamic, cost-effective, community-oriented alternative to lawyers. Paralegals do not replace lawyers but by working in conjunction with them can enhance the use of the law and the applicability of legal and policy solutions to individual and community problems. 

Community-based paralegals may bring together skill sets belonging to diverse professions, such as social workers, mediators, educators, traditional community leaders, interpreters, administrators, and lawyers, with the added value applying these skills according to the specific needs of the situation and the community.

The Roles of Community-Based Paralegals

A community-based paralegal is a person who: 

Has basic knowledge of the law, the legal system, and its procedures, and has basic legal skills Is a member of the community or part of an organization that works in the community and has basic knowledge of the ways community members access justice services 
(including through traditional or informal justice mechanisms) 

Has skills and knowledge on alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, including mediation, conflict resolution, and negotiation 

Is able to communicate ideas and information to community members using interactive teaching methods 

Can have working relationships with local authorities and service delivery agencies 

Has community organizing skills that can be used to empower communities to address systematic problems on their own in the future

Paralegals may be compensated as full- or part-time employees or may work as volunteers. This depends upon the ways in which the sponsoring organization uses personnel, the overall culture of volunteerism in a given country, the amount of time required of paralegals versus their discretionary time, and wage levels. If the paralegals work as volunteers, the program will ideally compensate them for transportation costs and other direct expenses.

Training can be seen as a benefit to the paralegal because they contribute to the paralegal’s personal and professional development. In more developed community-based programs, such as in South Africa, paralegals are lobbying to be formally accredited. (See Chapter 8 for details on standard-setting for paralegal diplomas.) Paralegals can be based in different kinds of organizations. They may be placed in “advice offices”—service organizations run by paralegals exclusively for the purpose of offering basic counsel, community education, and referrals.

Paralegals can also work in community-based or multi-service organizations where paralegal services are one of a series of services available to clients. They can also be based in law firms, law offices, and legal resource centers. In these settings, paralegals remove some of the workloads from lawyers by dealing with smaller cases and by doing much of the initial groundwork for interviewing, taking statements, and evidence gathering. They also do follow-up work and report back to clients.

It is important to bear in mind that a paralegal is not a lawyer. A paralegal cannot assist people in court and other tribunals until he or she acquires the relevant qualification and accreditation. However, paralegals also offer skills that lawyers rarely possess, and can extend the knowledge and expertise of the lawyers with whom they work. Paralegals can add complementary skills that are finely tuned to local contexts, such as speaking local languages, knowledge of local forms of justice, and community acceptance.

Common activities of community-based paralegal programs include:

Legal and general advice. Advise people on how to handle legal or administrative problems. Refer people to organizations that provide social and health services. The program will have a network of contacts with other paralegals, resources, and organizations that can help the community. Depending upon the local context, the paralegal might work with both formal and customary law institutions.

Counseling and mediation. Help community members solve problems through techniques that encourage resolution without going to court. Informal legal mechanisms can include personal counseling, alternative dispute resolution (negotiation and mediation), and arbitration.

Community education. Hold workshops to raise public awareness and build the capacity of individuals and groups, including civil society organizations, civil servants, government officials, and community councils. Distribute educational pamphlets, booklets, and other resources. Community-based paralegal programming initially involves the training of paralegals and these same paralegals, in turn, can become involved in community education programming.

Litigation activities. Investigate cases, sometimes involving legal research and writing that is then passed on to lawyers, or work as a link between a community and lawyers. Paralegals can help with taking statements, interpreting, and following up on cases. In some jurisdictions, paralegals can appear in lower level courts in relation to certain civil cases. If the paralegal organization has lawyers on staff, paralegals can help represent individuals or groups in cases before courts or administrative agencies on issues affecting the public interest. Paralegal organizations will often take a strategic approach to litigation, taking cases that affect not only the individual involved but also larger legal and social issues within a community or country.

Community organizing and advocacy. Help resolve widespread problems in a community and problems with authorities through negotiation and mediation. Assist in making contact with the press and publicizing events and problems. Some organizations take up cases that challenge existing laws while others draft and advocate for new legislation. Organizations may also provide analysis or opinions on legal instructions being considered.

Each paralegal program and its paralegals will need to choose the methods that are best suited to the individual cases they seek to address, as well as the overall environment in which the program operates. 

The Open Society Justice Initiative

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