Researching Community Paralegals

Six Country Research Project on Community Paralegals

Community paralegal programs of different stripes exist throughout the world, and date back to at least the 1950s, when Black Sash and other organizations deployed paralegals to help non-white South Africans navigate and defend themselves against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In recent years, the paralegal approach has gained increasing attention from the international community. Despite this rise in attention, there has been very little systematic study of the workings of paralegal programs.

Namati is completing a six-country study of paralegal programs begun by the World Bank Justice for the Poor program.  Our partners have completed research in Sierra Leone, Kenya, Indonesia, South Africa, Liberia and the Philippines. This study comparatively assesses paralegal programs’ impact on individuals, households, and patterns of local governance. It also assesses their scale, sustainability and their relationship to the state. The research draws on program case databases, interviews with paralegals, lawyers, program staff and other stakeholders.

The study is due to be finished soon, but three chapters are already complete, covering South Africa, Indonesia and The Philippines.

Study Countries


In the early 1980s Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia / The Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) began to train former clients, who were victims of human rights abuses under the New Order regime, to work as community paralegals. Additional civil society organizations began deploying paralegals in the 1990s, including Walhi, a major environmental network, and LBH Apik, Indonesia’s first legal aid organization focused on women. Today a coalition of organizations that includes these three is advocating for a legal aid act that would, among other things, recognize community paralegals as legal aid providers.

The World Bank Justice for the Poor program in Indonesia has engaged for several years in supporting and studying paralegals, and is our research partner for this country.


Paralegals first emerged here in the 1960s to assist non-white South Africans in navigating and defending themselves against the byzantine codes of the apartheid regime. Since 1994, South African paralegals have focused on areas such as pension benefits, the rights of people living with AIDS, employment issues, gender-based violence, and land restitution. In several ways paralegals in South Africa have progressed in the direction of professionalization and larger-scale organization: the National Alliance for the Development of Community Advice Offices (NADCAO) provides training and support to smaller paralegal programs; the University of Kwa Zulu Natal runs a degree program to train community paralegals; the national legal aid board extends resources, such as support from Legal Aid attorneys, to community-based paralegals. Legislation that would formally recognize the role community paralegals play had been tabled in parliament for several years and ultimately did not pass.  A new framework for this legislation is being discussed by the NADCAO and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is our research partner in South Africa.


The “people power” movement that brought down Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 gave rise to “alternative law groups” that use the law to pursue social justice. Among these groups’ core strategies is providing training and support to community paralegals. Like Indonesia, many paralegals in the Philippines are members of farmers’, workers’, and other membership organizations; they provide services voluntarily to their fellow members.

Paralegals and alternative law groups have translated their grassroots experience into policy advocacy, and have succeeded in shaping the substance of agrarian and labor reforms. Paralegals are also now legally entitled to represent fellow citizens in some administrative tribunals.

Hector Solimon, Jenny Franco, and Maria Roda Cisnero comprise our research team.  Participating organizations belong to the coalition Alternative Law Groups.


Timap for Justice is a Sierra Leonean community-based paralegal program founded in 2004. In 2009, Open Society Institute and the Government of Sierra Leone agreed to develop a national approach to justice services based in part on Timap’s methodology.

Justice for the Poor Sierra Leone is our research partner for Sierra Leone.  In conducting our study, we are also laying the foundation for a lasting mechanism for monitoring and evaluating justice services: a research methodology, a strengthened case database, a cadre of trained researchers.


Kenyan NGOs and faith institutions have trained community paralegals since the early 1990s. Most paralegals in Kenya work as volunteers. They address a wide range of justice issues, including land claims, inheritance, labor rights, and monitoring of government expenditure.

Africa Institute for Health and Development is our research partner in Kenya.


The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, a Liberian human rights organization, in partnership with The Carter Center, began the Community Legal Advisor program in 2007.  In addition, local and international organizations including the Norwegian Refugee Council, Prison Fellowship Liberia, the Sustainable Development Institute and The Foundation for International Dignity, operate similar projects in Liberia.

The Liberia chapter is based on empirical research by Bilal Siddiqi of Stanford University and Justin Sandefur of the Center for Global Development.