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Key Text Non-Lawyers as Legal Resources for Their Communities

Author: M McClymont and S Golub
Date: 2000
Size: 16 pages (1.24 MB)

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Non-lawyers are playing increasingly pivotal roles in many low-income communities around the world. What is their role in providing legal services? Are they a substutute for traditional legal professionals? This chapter of the book ‘Many Roads to Justice’ reviews the methods used by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community based organisations supported by the Foundation to enable disadvantaged populations to become more legally self-sufficient, filling legal aid voids that exist in societies with few lawyers.

‘Non-lawyers’ refers mainly to professional or voluntary paralegals but also to ordinary community residents who use the law collectively or individually to gain access to government services and legal processes. The aims of paralegal work are to increase critical awareness about rights and the law, the ability to assert rights and the capacity to mobilize for change.

An important result stemming from the expansion of paralegal work is the increased integration of human rights advocacy into mainstream development programs. NGO efforts have increased disadvantaged people’s access to justice in the following ways:

  • By enhancing their capacity to use legal processes and raising awareness of rights
  • By applying informed pressure on government bodies and private offenders for increased implementation
  • Heightened participatory development by bringing previously powerless voices into local decision-making processes.
  • Paralegal activity has been a catalyst for shifting of power imbalances (abusive husbands, repressive police, exploitative landlords) that negatively affect disadvantaged groups
  • Interactive approaches to the dissemination of legal information to poorly educated audiences have proved particularly effective. Television and radio are also useful means of reaching mass audiences.
  • In cases where courts are corrupt, prone to delays, expensive and confusing for clients, some NGOs have sought to create substitutes for the formal legal system, involving local and traditional forms of dispute resolution such as mediation.

The experiences recorded in this chapter lead to the following conclusions:

  • Paralegals are not complete substitutes for attorneys or community-wide education regarding the law. Legal services work best when they work together.
  • Increasingly, legal and extralegal strategies are being combined, so that use of law flows from an overall political strategy, as one of many vehicles for community mobilisation.
  • Appropriate testing of the various methods in specific contexts could help target use of limited donor funds and NGO energy.
  • Specificity of training is important. For example paralegals acting for farmers require knowledge of agrarian reform laws and regulations. Training should be for extended and repeated periods.
  • In seeking to popularise legal processes, NGOs need to keep pressing for gender equity in the procedures.
  • Through advocacy coalitions, alternative law groups working at community level can combine their experience to bring reform to government policies.

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Source: McClymont, M. and Golub, S. 2000, 'Non-lawyers as Legal Resources for Their Communities’ in Many Roads to Justice, Ford Foundation, New York.