Allies unknown: Social accountability and legal empowerment

This essay argues that two strands of social action which have hitherto developed separately — legal empowerment and social accountability — ought to learn from one another.1 “Legal empowerment” grows out of the tradition of legal aid for the poor and seeks, as legal aid has sought for centuries, to help people protect their rights. For much of the world’s population, legal aid in its classic form is either impractical or inadequate: lawyers are costly and scarce; lawyers are ill equipped to deal with the plural legal systems prevalent in most countries; and many people do not prefer the solutions afforded by litigation and formal legal process. Legal empowerment efforts aim to provide legal aid in a way that is practical, flexible, and responsive to socio-legal context. Legal empowerment programs often combine a small corps of lawyers with a larger frontline of community paralegals who, like primary health workers, are closer to the communities in which they work and employ a wider set of tools.

Drawing from the experience of Timap for Justice in Sierra Leone and kindred programs in many parts of the world, I argue here for five defining principles of the legal empowerment approach: a focus on concrete solutions to instances of injustice; a combination of litigation with more flexible, grassroots tools like education, organizing, advocacy, and mediation; a pragmatic, synthetic orientation towards plural legal systems; a commitment to empowerment; and a balance between rights and responsibilities.

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