Opportunity & Access

Innovation: Using Paralegals for Grassroots Justice

Nonprofit Namati brings legal resources to countries around the world that are short on courts and lawyers.

May 29, 2012

| by Michele Chandler

She was a sometime prostitute and sometime cigarette vendor living in the African nation of Sierra Leone who got beaten unconscious in the street by an intoxicated off-duty police officer. He’d demanded and received cigarettes on credit, but became enraged because the woman didn’t have any plastic bags.

When she awoke after his attack, the rest of her cigarettes, and all of her cash, were gone.

She wanted redress, but Sierra Leone’s legal system didn’t give her many options. Just 100 lawyers practice in the entire country of 6.2 million, and few were located in her region. Besides, she was too poor to hire an attorney, and the dearth of lawyers means there’s little free legal aid.

So the woman turned to a frontline network of paralegals that aims to bring a modicum of justice to ordinary people in her country.

Namati, a year-old international nonprofit, is working with dozens of on-the-ground groups, like the one in Sierra Leone, to train community residents how to defend people’s rights. Vivek Maru,Namati’s CEO, spoke recently about the effort during the Global Crossroads conference, which was sponsored by the Center for Global Business and the Economy of Stanford GSB.

A Yale-educated attorney and former senior counsel in the Justice Reform Group of the World Bank, Maru has spent the past decade helping to develop grassroots paralegal programs. While in Sierra Leone in 2003 — the year after the official end of that country’s decade-long civil war — he cofounded Timap for Justice, a group that operates a community paralegal program there. In 2011, he launched Namati, which convened a network of 120 institutions worldwide that work on grassroots justice and other issues.

The paralegals learn a range of skills, including “the workings of government, basic law, and some simple tools including mediation, advocacy, organizing, and community education,” Maru said. An oversight board comprised of area residents monitors the paralegals’ performance.

If unable to solve disputes on their own, the paralegals can request assistance from a network of legal experts in their regions.

“Not unlike the health worker who is connected to a hospital and a doctor, these paralegals are connected to a small core of lawyers who can invoke litigation and higher-level advocacy in severe cases,” Maru explained. “In a country with 100 lawyers, a drop of litigation goes a long way. These paralegals are able to squeeze justice out of a broken system.”

Paralegals handle such grievances as wrongful denial of welfare benefits or unwarranted fees from health care clinics. They’ve taken complaints from small farmers being ordered to pay bribes in order to get seeds for planting.

According to a 2006 report that Maru wrote about Sierra Leone’s Timap for Justice community-based paralegal program, “severe poverty and a lack of infrastructure” exacerbate many disputes. Informal systems of justice can also conflict with state-run institutions. “There needs to be cheap, fast, and fair mechanisms for handling grievances within the administrative state,” Maru said.

Paralegal programs have also helped resolve conflicts in other parts of the world, including Indonesia and the Philippines. In apartheid-era South Africa in the 1950s, the Black Sash organization deployed volunteers to advocate for families affected by racially discriminatory apartheid laws. Right now, Namati is working with other organizations to explore whether the community paralegal model can work in Burma and Egypt, countries where political transitions are underway.

“High-level political negotiations are absolutely crucial,” Maru explained. “But simultaneously, it’s equally important to provide direct grassroots services to advance justice.”

In the case of the woman beaten by a policeman in Sierra Leone, a Timap paralegal corroborated the victim’s account of the incident with witnesses and sent a letter summoning the policeman to appear at the paralegal’s office. There, the paralegal told him that the allegations were serious, that they planned to follow up with the police department’s complaints board, and they also would consider further prosecution. Now threatened himself, the police officer settled with the victim, paying her the U.S. equivalent of $50 — about what a nurse there earns in one month — and apologized publicly to her outside his police station.

“You could say $50 is cheap for the kind of brutality he committed,” Maru said. “But there was some form of redress. It’s a big deal to have a public apology from a police officer to a sometimes-prostitute, sometimes-cigarette vendor. And the woman herself was shocked that things had come around, that she didn’t just have to bear the suffering that life had dealt her.”

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