For the average person, a lawyer may conjure up the image of a professional in a buttoned-down jacket straight out of the legal drama, Suits. But not to Nadim Hossain, a local pharmacist in the city of Khulna, Bangladesh. One of 300,000 Urdu-speaking Bangladeshis settled in a refugee camp set up by the Red Cross in 1971, Hossain’s attempts to apply for a bank loan to lift his family out of poverty details a long struggle for justice. It was an unlikely aide—a ‘barefoot lawyer’ that helped him successfully obtain a trade license for a loan.
Community paralegals or ‘barefoot lawyers’ trained by Namati, a social enterprise that works on legal empowerment, are changing how the world’s poorest people access the law. Early efforts to make the law accessible has primarily focused on investing in state institutions—training judges, building courthouses, buying police cars—or addressing the financial costs for services through waivers, pro-bono legal consultants or civic education programs. Namati, in contrast, works directly with citizens to pursue justice.
And this approach is paying off. Now, a network of community paralegals work on the ground in 10 countries to help refugees, farmers, women and countless minorities secure their rights. Vivek Maru, a graduate of Yale Law School who founded Namati in 2011, stresses the need to move from looking at law as an ‘expensive service’ to an accessible right. “Law, historically, has been very closed, very elite. We wanted to open that up. It is fundamental to our democracy, so it shouldn’t be locked away.” he says in an interview with Tom Paulson. He argues that the law should be something that all of us can understand, use and shape.
Maru’s concern is justified. The gap in justice has been growing steadily. A United Nations commission estimated that 4 billion people across the world were living outside the protection of the law in 2008, and these numbers have barely improved. Nearly 1 million low-income Americans who sought legal aid from the LSC (Legal Services Corporation) were turned away in 2009 because of a lack of resources. In nearly 80% of cases in civil courts, one or both parties appeared without a lawyer in 2015. In developing countries like India, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Jordan the numbers are even worse. Over 31 million cases filed in court were classified pending in India in 2014, a majority of which were stuck in lower courts. In Sierra Leone, the poor face so many structural challenges in navigating the law that many simply believe that the justice system is different for the rich and the poor.
By no means is the idea of community paralegals a new one, explains Maru. Community paralegals have played a unique role in liaising and navigating legal matters since the ‘50s. The manner in which paralegals helped communities resist apartheid in South Africa was exemplary. The Black Sash in Johannesburg is a great example of how Community Advice Officers (CAOs) helped non-white citizens defy arrest, detention, and death.
Namati’s endeavors—on similar lines—have exposed gross injustice and corruption while empowering the poor to fight for their rights. These ground level efforts have directly changed the lives of over 40,000 people across the world, many of whom might have never been able to challenge authority. When fisherfolk in Vapi, a small industrial town in Gujarat, India, wanted to take action against industries that dumped waste illegally into their river, they sought the help of Manisha Goswami. A paralegal trained by Namati, Goswami helped the community gather the evidence they needed to file a complaint with the Gujarat Pollution Board (GPB). As a result, the GPB issued a notice to 53 factories, asking them to abide by the law or shut down.
Vapi’s story is more than a small success for Namati, it is a validation of the future of justice. In Sierra Leone, 70 families were able to recover 1486 acres of land that was illegally grabbed from them with the support of local paralegals. Liberia even adopted a community land protection model piloted by Namati and its partner, Sustainable Development Institute, in its national land policy.
The genius of the paralegal system, Maru argues, is that it offers an opportunity to develop universal access to justice. Namati now convenes the Global Legal Empowerment Network, over 600 groups from 150 countries collaborating and learning from one another. That community successfully advocated for a commitment to “access to justice for all” in the new Sustainable Development Goals, ushering in a new era of global justice reform.
“Transformation in the relationship between the law and people is possible,” says Maru, while accepting the prestigious Skoll award for his work at Namati earlier this year. “I have seen it happening in the most unlikely places.”
To fix this problem, Namati aims to achieve ‘law of all’ by focusing on legal empowerment. Every ‘barefoot lawyer’ that Namati trains comes from within the communities that need legal assistance the most. As community paralegals, they are trained in basic law, negotiation, organizing, and advocacy. Paralegals and clients solve many problems on their own—fisher people persuade a private port to stop blocking their access to the sea, farmers negotiate for a fair deal with an agricultural investor.
If those methods don’t work, they can request help from a senior lawyer who can engage in litigation or higher level advocacy. The four major areas that Namati works on—protecting community lands, enforcing environmental law, and securing basic rights to healthcare and citizenship—are some of the core issues that most often affect low-income citizens.