Community paralegals are grassroots advocates who use their knowledge of the law to seek concrete solutions to instances of injustice. Based on the needs of a given case, they may employ such tools as mediation, community organizing, education, and advocacy before formal or customary authorities. Paralegals are often linked to lawyers who provide guidance and can resort to litigation if frontline methods fail. This guide is for people who are designing or improving community-based paralegal programs. It draws lessons from both grassroots experience and research.

Since at least the 1950s, when community paralegals in South Africa began helping people to navigate and resist apartheid, paralegals have played a vital role in empowering communities around the world. Nowadays, paralegal programs have evolved to be quite diverse. Some provide holistic services, while others focus on specific issues such as land or the rights of prisoners. Some paralegals are paid while others are volunteers. Some work with nongovernmental organizations—including legal NGOs, community based organizations, and membership associations such as farmers’ groups —while others are a part of government legal aid programs.

A paralegal program should be designed to meet local needs and to thrive on local support. The following tools offer guidance on needs assessments and other preparatory steps required to lay the foundation for an effective paralegal program.

Paralegals are distinguished by their training in law and government. When resolving problems, they may employ one or more of the following basic tools: 1) education; 2) mediation; 3) community organizing; 4) advocacy; 5) monitoring or investigation; and, with the help of lawyers, 6) litigation. This section offers guidance on how to build a strong training program that hones these six critical skills.

Some paralegal programs specialize in resolving disputes relating to one particular issue. Resources here are provided for paralegals working on land and property rights, gender-based violence, and prisoners’ rights.

If paralegals are to be consistently effective over time, their efforts need to be well managed and well organized. Features of a good monitoring and evaluation system include: a system for tracking paralegal work, a mechanism for providing paralegals with ongoing supervision and support, and a means for evaluation.

Paralegal organizations are often responsible for costs associated with training, office space, materials, transportation to reach clients and government offices, staff and paralegal salaries, and litigation for a small percentage of cases. A variety of fundraising and financial management models exist to sustain these efforts; the tools below provide techniques for smart management and attracting funds.