Legal empowerment is about making the protections of the law accessible to ordinary people.
Nearly all nations endorse human rights norms at least in name, but while governments can be shamed and cases can be won in international courts, these alone cannot address most breaches of basic rights—or help people solve their day to day justice problems. A new mother travels many miles to register the birth of her child only to find that she cannot afford the bribe required for registration; a juvenile is wrongfully detained and loses time in school; several villages’ land is damaged by a mining company without compensation; an illiterate widow is denied the inheritance she is entitled to and is forced to move to the citywith her young children. By what consistent, systematic means can individuals and communities protect their rights in daily life?
The development movement has arrived at a kindred set of concerns. Governments and agencies seek to alleviate poverty by fostering economic growth and by improving essential services like health, education, and water. Increasingly those pursuing development recognize that success in reaching these goals depends on communities’ ability to participate in them, and to hold public institutions accountable. Governments and donors can build clinics and schools. But what happens if the medicines and books aren’t delivered, or if the nurses or teachers don’t show up to work?
The emerging field of legal empowerment has pioneered practical methods for meeting these related challenges. It includes a range of approaches from improving grievance mechanisms to deal with breaches in public service delivery, to working with civil society groups to help people find practical solutions to their own problems, informed by knowledge of the law.
Programs often combine a small corps of lawyers with a larger frontline of community paralegals who are trained in law and the workings of government and who use mediation, organizing, legal education and advocacy, to assist citizens in finding concrete solutions to instances of injustice. Just as primary health workers are connected to doctors and the formal medical system, paralegals are connected to lawyers and the possibility of litigation and high-level advocacy when frontline methods fail. This enables justice to live beyond the reach of courts, bridging the gap between formal and customary justice systems, and beyond commonly understood ‘legal’ problems, into the realms of health, education, livelihoods, and other basic needs.