Public Lab Research note

The concept of community paralegals

by liz | October 16, 2020 20:29 16 Oct 20:29 | #24756 | #24756

I'm reading the book Community Paralegals and the Pursuit of Justice (pricey hardcover, free PDF download), and right off the bat was struck by the similarities with how community science relates to the pursuit of justice as an "intermediary institution:"

Advancing justice requires at least three elements. First, people need to conceive of themselves as bearers of rights, as agents capable of action. In other words, they must undergo that transformation of outlook in which, as Hannah Pitkin puts it, “I want” becomes “I am entitled to.” Second, state institutions – administrative agencies, legislatures, the courts – need to be fair, effective, and responsive to their citizens. Much of political science is about how to make governments more so. Third, in our view, there is a need for intermediary institutions that assist citizens in exercising their rights. In other words, there needs to be, as Gauri and Brinks describe it, a “legal support structure appropriate to the claims being brought, in light of the institutional requirements” in any given context. There are many kinds of intermediary institutions. Political parties and unions, for example, serve as intermediaries for electoral politics and workplaces respectively. Public interest lawyers help people access formal courts. Ombudsman offices serve as intermediaries for citizens seeking to resolve grievances against the state. In this book, we aim to characterize and assess a lesser-known intermediate institution – the community paralegal. According to the 2012 Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals, community paralegals “use knowledge of law and government and tools like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy to [help people] seek concrete solutions to instances of injustice.”

(footnotes not included in the excerpt above)

This concept has been practiced internationally by, whose tagline is "innovations in legal empowerment."


Interesting. I know friends who work as paralegals in the prison system in Louisiana. They have to watch out, in case the DA goes after them for "impersonating a lawyer" while they help their clients.

Thanks for sharing this read! Also interesting how community advocacy groups and activists in the Global South have filled similar intermediary role over centuries, and continue to. They are under a lot of oppression and regularly become the target of colonial governments, military, and 'for hire' assassins. Global Witness keeps an eye on this. An analysis of how these intermediary "institutions" in the Global North hold different power and varying dynamics than the realities of many would be one to be aware of as well.

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