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Community Paralegals

Community paralegals provide a bridge between the law and real life. Depending on context, they may be called barefoot lawyers, grassroots legal advocates, community advisors and mobilizers, or even health advocates or environmental coordinators.

Whatever they are called, they share a common characteristic: a focus on legal empowerment. Instead of treating their clients as victims requiring an expert service—“I will solve this problem for you”— community paralegals’ message is “we will solve this together and grow stronger in the process.”

Community paralegals are different from conventional paralegals—their primary role is not to assist lawyers, but rather to work directly with the communities they serve. They are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. They form a dynamic, creative frontline that can engage formal and traditional institutions alike.

But just as primary health workers are connected to doctors and hospitals, community paralegals should be connected to lawyers and the possibility of litigation or high-level advocacy if frontline methods fail.

Community paralegal programs are diverse. Members of our Global Legal Empowerment Network tackle a wide range of justice challenges, from women’s empowerment to prisoners’ rights. Namati’s community paralegals work on land, health, citizenship, and environmental justice.

How Community Paralegals Work

Community paralegals use several strategies to advance justice. These include:

  • Public education to increase awareness of the law
  • Advising clients on legal process, and options for pursuing remedies
  • Assisting clients to navigate authorities and institutions
  • Mediating disputes
  • Organizing collective action
  • Advocacy
  • Fact-finding, investigations, and monitoring

In exceptionally difficult or serious cases, a paralegal can seek the assistance of a lawyer, who in turn may resort to litigation or higher-level advocacy. Often, the credible threat of litigation can lead more powerful parties to participate in mediation or negotiation.

Advantages of This Approach

At their best, community paralegals can:

  • Promote empowerment by fostering legal awareness and agency of clients.
  • Provide tailored solutions to legal problems due to their creative strategies, range of skills and tools, and deep knowledge of local context.
  • Be more cost-effective and accessible than most lawyers.
  • Find solutions not only for individuals but also for entire communities.
  • Engage a wide range of institutions, including administrative agencies and customary authorities.
  • Prioritize a fair resolution rather than taking sides with only one party to a conflict

Learn more about community paralegals: