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.
Community paralegals use several strategies to advance justice. These include:
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.
At their best, community paralegals can:
Justice at the Frontline
The slums of Nairobi are some of the toughest places in the world to live. Injustice makes life tougher. Read how paralegals supported by network member Kituo cha Sheria are solving conflicts and protecting the weak.View Gallery
African Voices of Legal Empowerment
The first continent-wide meeting of grassroots legal advocates, or community paralegals, took place in Kampala in July 2012. These interviews illuminate the amazing work they do and the issues they face making justice a reality for people across Africa.Watch the Interviews
Turning Towards Justice
Photographer Aubrey Wade travelled to Sierra Leone for Namati to document how paralegals are helping people negotiate a legal system with both traditional and formal institutions.View Gallery
Women Behind Bars
This film by IRIN captures the work of AdvocAid, one of Namati's partner organisations in Sierra Leone. It focuses on the efforts of paralegals Marvel and Victoria to help women who come into contact with the police and prison system.Watch the Film
Middle Eastern Voices of Legal Empowerment
In 2013 Namati held the first-ever Middle Eastern meeting of legal empowerment organisations. Leading justice practitioners told us about the kinds of issues their programs deal with.Read the interviews