Legal empowerment works: the evidence

Download the full Legal Empowerment Evidence Review here.
Read Professor Maurits Barendrecht’s commentary on the Evidence Review here.

By Laura Goodwin 

Evidence matters. Despite a growing field of practice and many examples of success, there has been no comprehensive understanding of what can be achieved when people are empowered to understand and use the law. Until now.

In “What do we know about legal empowerment? Mapping the Evidence,” Vivek Maru, Namati’s CEO, and I compile and analyse all the available evidence on how legal empowerment works. This is the first review of its kind.

There is substantial information on the impact of civil society-led legal empowerment programs. We found 199 studies, uncovered through online research, expert interviews, and contributions from the Global Legal Empowerment Network. The evidence includes interventions on every major continent and draws from a range of research methods such as surveys, interviews, and case studies.

Our main finding is that legal empowerment, in all its myriad forms and wide range of contexts, works. In total, 97 per cent of the studies reported at least one positive change. Even programs that failed to make the changes they were designed for had other, unexpected positive effects on communities, individuals and the law.

We found most programs use a combination of legal empowerment strategies, such as providing legal education alongside mediation services, or training people how to file right-to-information requests and then use the results in advocacy. We found legal literacy – teaching people about their basic rights – to be the single most studied approach.

The review also found that legal empowerment can be very successfully combined with broader development programs. For example, several Kenyan NGOs trained healthcare providers to identify rights violations, give patients information on the law, and provide referrals. A study found that by training health workers you can increase the practical knowledge of patients on how to access legal aid. In addition, through referrals from trained health workers, patients were better able to access the kind of specific legal assistance related to their poor health.

Of the range of positive changes we found in the review the most common was an increase in personal agency – the extent to which people believe they can control the things that affect their lives. This was seen both in increased willingness to act and in actual action. The second most common positive program outcome was enhanced legal knowledge.

We also found that a large number of legal empowerment programs successfully provided beneficiaries with a legal remedy, secured them a government entitlement, or strengthened access to important information. For example, in Mexico, an NGO called CADHAC assisted prisoners in filing information requests on their behavior records, because good conduct could lead to early release in certain cases. The prisoners’ efforts not only led to the release of their personal files, but more than 40 per cent of requesting prisoners used that information to achieve early release in accordance with the law.

We also found strong evidence that legal empowerment has improved health and education outcomes and increased people’s incomes.

In addition to impacts on people’s lives and development outcomes, legal empowerment interventions also led to positive change within governments and other institutions. In total 90 of the studies in this review found changes to the way institutions operate. These changes tend to be concentrated at the local level, though some research also measured shifts in national policy.

The review found that legal empowerment programs often affect traditional authorities. In Bangladesh, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) trained local committees of women to monitor shalish, a traditional justice mechanism. Their monitoring, along with legal education of shalish members, mitigated an outrageous misuse of religious law in marital disputes.

An important frontier for the legal empowerment movement in the future will be translating the lessons of grassroots programs into large-scale policy change. Existing studies show that such change is possible, but we have a great deal to learn about the factors that determine success.

Despite a wealth of information on the impact of legal empowerment, there are still gaps in the existing evidence. Further research would be particularly useful on:

  • How legal empowerment can achieve institutional change at the national level
  • Medium and long terms effects of legal empowerment programs as well as the sustainability of positive impacts over time
  • Paralegal impact on development outcomes, beyond reporting the resolution of a client’s immediate legal need
  • Empowerment-focused use of human rights commissions, ombudsman offices, and public interest litigation

As legal empowerment matures as a field, the evidence base will continue to grow. Practitioners can contribute to this by sharing the results of their work. And we plan to add to this evidence review – making it a living, growing resource for the legal empowerment movement. Let us know when current ongoing research is completed; tell us whenever there are new investigations into what works and why. By sharing knowledge we help practitioners to learn from one another, so they can design evidence-based programs, and ultimately strengthen the impact of legal empowerment.

Appendix 1: Coding Guide

Appendix 3: List of Studies Reviewed

Laura Goodwin is Namati’s Program Manager in Yangon, Burma. Laura has previous experience with human rights work in the US and Asia. In Cambodia, she worked in the legal reform and transitional justice fields, with a particular focus on outreach and education programs for victims of the Khmer Rouge. In Washington, DC, Laura has been involved in initiatives ranging from genocide activism to assisting asylum seekers. She also spent several years administering international education programs in China. Laura earned her Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School, where her studies focused on human rights law and human security. She holds a BA from American University’s School of International Service.


May 2, 2014 | Laura Goodwin