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How to Develop a Community Paralegal Program

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.

Introduction to Community-Based Paralegals

These introductory videos and materials will give you a helpful glimpse into the work and challenges facing paralegals around the world.

Generalist versus Specialist Paralegals

Paralegals may be generalists, who respond to the issues that community members raise, or specialize in resolving particular types of grievances, such as healthcare or land use. These resources offer examples of both generalist and specialist paralegals at work.

Research on Paralegal Movements Worldwide

The body of research on paralegal methods and impacts is growing. Below are a variety of key evaluation studies, as well as research into the political and cultural factors shaping paralegal work.

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.

Understanding the Local Context

A needs assessment process gives insight into the feasibility of a paralegal program, as well as the human and physical resources required to address unmet justice needs within a community.

Gaining local buy-in and support

Paralegal programs often need to gain the trust and support of the local community and its leadership in order to work effectively.

Finding the right people

A paralegal program not only needs well-trained paralegals, but also effective support staff, supervisors and board oversight.

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.

General Training Methods

Training methods vary greatly by country and context. Training should always be contextualized to address the local needs and justice issues to be handled by the paralegals. The following tools offer insight into general approaches and techniques useful for training paralegals.

Basic Law

While paralegals often work with lawyers, basic legal knowledge and understanding of administrative processes is at the core of what makes someone a community paralegal. While instruction in the law will necessarily vary from country to country, below are a sample of visual aids used in paralegal trainings in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

Mediation and Dispute Resolution

The ability to mediate with sensitivity and fairness between two parties is a key skill for paralegals, whether they are dealing with interpersonal or intra-communal disputes.

Advocacy

Often, legal issues require political solutions; it is important for paralegals to know how to advocate for the needs of their communities.

Community Organizing

Community organising is a key paralegal skill and is needed to ensure the success of initiatives such as legal education and advocacy.

Monitoring and Investigating

In the course of a paralegal’s casework, paralegals may engage in monitoring human rights abuses or other conflicts that require careful observation, reporting, and follow-up action.

Litigation

Because paralegals often work with lawyers, litigation may be used as a last resort for more challenging or high-impact cases.

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.

Land Rights

Gender Issues and Vulnerable Populations

Pretrial Detention and Prisoners' Rights

Public Health

  • How to Develop and Support Justice Programs for Public Health

    Open Society Foundations Public Health Program

    This is itself an online resource guide dedicated to public health and justice with 100+ resources compiled in thematic sections. This Virtual Toolkit complements the Open Society Foundations’ recent publication Justice Programs for Public Health: A Good Practice Guide. It includes all publicly available sources used in preparing the Guide, as well as further readings and additional practical resources from the field, such as videos, training manuals, forms and templates for case management and documenting human rights abuses, and sample baseline and advocacy reports. We hope the resources in this Toolkit will prove helpful to implementers and donors interested in supporting programs that advance the health and human rights of socially excluded groups.

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.

Developing a Case Management System

Case management forms should be designed to be as intuitive as possible. Even then, it is necessary to train paralegals and staff how to use the forms in order to avoid mistakes and thoroughly document case evidence.

Case Tracking Forms

The following guides and sample forms demonstrate how to effectively track and manage cases. These examples are used by existing paralegal programs.

Evaluating and Documenting Impact

Measuring the successes and shortcomings of a paralegal program is vital to the growth and continuous improvement of the program. The following resources include guides and case studies for effectively evaluating the impact of paralegal programs.

Methods for Supervision and Support

Paralegals should be accountable to both the communities they serve, as well as their senior paralegals and lawyers. Many organisations seek to establish internal structures to ensure accountability and quality of service.

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.

Fundraising

Paralegal programs should seek to diversify funding sources and secure long-term commitments. Many existing paralegal programs raise the majority of their funds through international organizations, but there are a variety of viable models. Government justice institutions may finance legal aid efforts where paralegals are recognized, while other organizations raise funds through microfinance and social enterprises.

Managing Funds

The following resources offer useful guidance from existing paralegal programs to managers and directors seeking to establish accountable budgeting and financing systems.

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