Legal empowerment work is being done all across the world, under different guises: as legal empowerment, as access to justice, poverty reduction, women’s empowerment, legal aid, human rights, governance, the environment, and civil society, among others. While specific definitions vary, several key elements recur:
Empowerment. Unlike traditional rule of law thinking, legal empowerment views the poor and marginalized communities as partners. It seeks to cultivate the agency and power of affected communities. Legal empowerment does not say, “I will solve this problem for you,” but rather, “I will work with you to solve this problem, and give you tools with which to better face such problems in the future.”
Those who cannot otherwise access law. Legal empowerment is about power relations. It seeks to help those who, because of lack of power, are unable to seek justice. This may include those without means to access a lawyer—including the poor, and marginalized people like those living with HIV, people who use drugs, Roma, sex workers, people with disabilities, women, and other minority groups—and in some countries may include wide sections of the population.
Practical solutions. Legal empowerment seeks to help people find concrete solutions to their daily justice problems, to demonstrate, case by case, that even in an environment marked by arbitrariness and unfairness, justice is possible.
A combination of tools. Legal empowerment encompasses a wide set of tools, flexibly applying grassroots methods such as education, information, organizing, and mediation, similar to those used in social accountability and empowerment, but backed up by the possibility of high-level advocacy and litigation when other methods fail.
The use of paralegals and other non-lawyers, linked to lawyers. Legal empowerment programs often combine a small corps of lawyers with a larger frontline of community paralegals or other non-lawyers, who, like primary health workers, are closer to the communities in which they work. Paralegals often come from, and are committed to, staying in those communities and can employ a wider range of tools, and foster greater trust, than traditional lawyers might.
A balance between rights and responsibilities. Legal empowerment efforts aim to strike a balance between rights and responsibility, by supporting community and self-help organizations and by advocating as often and as strenuously for fulfillment of citizen obligation as for insistence on citizen rights.
An integrated approach to plural legal systems. Rejecting both contempt for and romanticization of traditional institutions, legal empowerment engages and respects both traditional and modern legal regimes, builds bridges between them, and advocates for the positive evolution of each.
Holding more powerful agents to account. Legal empowerment seeks to increase the voice of marginalized community members in local governance and public policy. A variety of means can be used, including improving grievance mechanisms to deal with breaches in public service delivery, facilitating involvement of local communities in designing local policies, etc.
Integrating law into socioeconomic development. Others beyond the justice sector can benefit from using legal empowerment methodologies. For example, initiatives on natural resources management, public health, education, livelihoods, small business enterprise, and governance can all be improved by integrating an element of legal empowerment, by strengthening the ability of communities to recourse to suitable justice mechanisms.