More than half of the world’s population lacks meaningful access to justice. Grassroots justice defenders are working to close this global justice gap by helping communities around the world know, use, and shape the law. They are building community power to drive systemic change, and advancing the goal of more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies (SDG 16). Yet, community paralegals face a lack of investment in financing and protection.
On March 22, 2023, community-based paralegals and representatives from civil society and development organizations gathered at the University of Nairobi Faculty of Law to hear directly from community paralegals, His Excellency the Canadian High Commissioner Mr. Christopher Thornley, the Honorable Chief Justice of Kenya Martha Koome (through a representative), the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers Prof. Margaret Sattherthwaite, Namati, and Canada’s International Development Research Centre about the importance of strengthening grassroots justice in Kenya and abroad.
Kituo cha Sheria and the Paralegal Society of Kenya (PSK) played a key role in putting on the event. PSK National Coordinator Mary Airo opened by urging development partners to continue funding paralegals, emphasizing the transformative impact of their work on society: “It is when paralegals engage local state institutions in concrete ways that justice is made accessible.” Elssy Saina, Chairperson of PSK and Executive Director of the International Commission of Jurists-Kenya then shared research showing that there are social, political, and economic benefits for Kenya of implementing and financing a robust legal aid regime that centers community-based approaches.
The Honorable Chief Justice of Kenya, Martha Koome, in remarks delivered by Principal Magistrate Moses Wanjala, emphasized the Court’s commitment to people-centered justice, noting that “Paralegals can help ensure that the justice system is not only accessible, but also responsive to the needs and realities of the people it is intended to serve.” The Chief Justice announced two exciting initiatives to support collaboration between the Kenyan Judiciary and community paralegals. First, the Judiciary plans to provide training and capacity building through the National Steering Committee on Alternative Justice Systems to ensure community paralegals are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide effective legal services. And second, the Judiciary will help facilitate the involvement of community paralegals in the Small Claims Court to represent litigants.
The Canadian government is similarly prioritizing grassroots justice as a way to close the access to justice gap, by providing funding and programmatic support to community-level justice efforts around the world. In the words of Christopher Thornley, the High Commissioner of Canada to Kenya: “Prioritizing support for justice at the community level has been shown to be more effective in empowering women and marginalized groups of persons to know and claim their rights – which in turns offers potential for activating fundamental rights in our societies and building a deeper and richer conception of citizenship and democracy.”
Professor Margaret Satterthwaite, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, pledged to use her UN mandate to shine a light on the essential work of grassroots advocates. She shared poignant reflections from her work with survivors of military abuses in Haiti, emphasizing that it is community justice advocates who have taught her the most about discrimination and injustice. She urged the audience to listen to and learn from communities, who best understand the problems they are facing and the solutions they need. Professor Satterthwaite put forth her vision for an expanded legal ecosystem in which paralegals and lawyers work together as allies and partners to dismantle systems of exclusion and close the global access to justice gap.
Two powerful panels gave life to the importance of this vision and to the crucial work being done by grassroots advocates in Kenya and around the world. In the first, Kenyan community paralegals Anthony Njenga (Kibera Community Justice Centre), Juliet Kisilu (Eastleigh Community Justice Centre), and community organizer David Mwangi (Akiba Mashinani Trust) shared their success stories and challenges from supporting single mothers to formalize their shops and earn a living, providing legal aid to individuals at Nairobi City Court, and organizing the Mukuru community to advocate for access to basic services. The three were in agreement that community justice workers must be formally recognized, resourced, and included in decision-making!
A second panel showcased the learning agenda for legal empowerment, a collective learning effort in which 11 projects across 16 countries are using participatory action research to identify what works to uphold human rights in the face of structural inequality and exclusion and rapidly eroding public accountability. Representatives from three of the projects were highlighted in the conversation: Sheila Formento from Alternative Law Groups in the Philippines, Jane Weru from Kenya’s Akiba Mashinani Trust, and Antonia Berríos & Macarena Martinic from Chile’s Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente. They shared how they are using systematic research and learning to build community power, increase the participation of women and marginalized groups in decision-making, and advance changes to laws and institutions.
In Kenya and around the globe, the transformative potential of community-level justice work is clear. Recognizing and funding the work of grassroots justice defenders is crucial to ensure that marginalized communities know their rights and can navigate the path to justice.
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