The Legal Empowerment Movement and Its Implications

By: Peter Chapman

Around the world, a global legal empowerment movement is transforming
the way in which people access justice. The concept of legal empowerment
is rooted in strengthening the ability of communities to: “understand, use
and shape the law.” The movement relies on people helping one another to
stand up to authority and challenge injustice. At its center are paralegals,
barefoot lawyers, and community advocates. Backed up by lawyers, these
advocates are having significant impacts.

Legal empowerment advocates employ a range of tools driven by the
communities with which they work, including information, organizing,
advocacy, and litigation. They take on issues including problems of health
care, violations of consumer rights, threats to personal safety, environmental
contamination, and challenges to property rights. Legal empowerment
advocates tackle individual cases but a key objective of legal empowerment
is systemic change.

Informed by expanding evidence of need, buoyed by regulatory
innovation, and in response to local activism, civil society organizations and
government institutions are embracing the notion that people who are not
trained as lawyers can competently help people assess their rights and resolve
their legal problems. In South Africa, an independent network of Community
Advice Offices is expanding legal awareness and mobilizing collective action to tackle injustices. In Canada, Legal Aid Ontario supports nonlawyers within health clinics and community centers to respond to people with legal needs who might never visit a court. In Ukraine and other countries, “primary legal aid” is now incorporating roles for non-lawyers and civil society organizations to provide information and assistance.