Legal Empowerment Leadership Course 2017- Legal Empowerment & Its Importance- Blog

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A world that provides access to justice through ‘practicing law’ is only a starting point for a just and peaceful world that we aspire

Posted On:  06 Jan . 2018
Legal Empowerment Leadership Course 2017- Legal Empowerment & Its Importance- Blog

Legal Empowerment Leadership Course 2017


by Saurabh Sood (Senior Research and Policy Associate)


Development Research and Policy Initiatives , S M Sehgal Foundation


In this document, I introduce the topic of legal empowerment and its importance. I also describe my experience of attending a leadership course on legal empowerment held at Central European University (Budapest) and share key learnings from the same.


1.Why Do We Need Legal Empowerment?


The global agenda for sustainable development envisions a just and a peaceful world for all. The only way to achieve this dream of citizens living in equality and with equal rights and opportunities lies in providing access to justice. Access to justice simply refers to protection from being denied essential services or excluded from society or suffer violence or any form of injustice.


A world that provides access to justice through ‘practicing law’ is only a starting point for a just and peaceful world that we aspire. Billions of people today lack this protection and have little or no say in shaping the laws that govern them. Legal empowerment is about changing just that! It is based on the understanding that the power to secure justice lies in the hands of each individual when they have the suitable means to achieve so. Through legally empowering their citizens, countries can ensure that the ‘power of the people’ is demonstrated through them actively engaging with legal systems.


To translate such a vision into reality needs a transformative movement of extending legal education at the grassroots. And this movement is already picking up, championed by leaders of legal empowerment.  The leadership course was aimed at providing the necessary thrust to turn these efforts into a global movement by promoting collaboration and cross learning across successful projects. It saw the attendance of sixty participants from over thirty countries who came together to cultivate their shared understanding of issues of access to justice, in their respective contexts, into solutions. The course methodology included lectures by faculty members and participatory learning through interactive sessions in small groups.


The course was held in collaboration between the CEU’s School of Public Policy (SPP), the Open Society Justice Initiative, Namati, and the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at New York University School of Law.


2.Why Was I At The Course?


I was an invited participant at the course, representing S M Sehgal Foundation, a grassroots NGO that works on issues of law and governance across five states in India.


The foundation has a history of being associated to this global network of change makers and was bestowed with the Namati Global Justice Prize in 2015, under the Special Category of Best Learners, for a project that focuses on demand and supply or local governance and justice.


3.We have been working since 2008 at the grassroots level with citizens and village level institutions for the cause of access to justice. We work with an established model of Good Rural Governance (GRG) through effective citizen participation. Its design is based on a simple premise that effective citizen participation forms the core of advancing good rural governance towards increased access to justice and democracy.


4.Key Highlights From The Course Sessions


 Vivek Maru (Founder of Namati, global network of grassroots legal advocates) spoke, in the opening session, of three critical components of the process of legal empowerment that includes imparting capacity and skills to ‘know law’, ‘use law’ and ‘shape law’. He added that frontline workers or community paralegals are best placed to drive this process because of their close proximityto the communities, their ability to effectively work with multiple institutions, methods and the cost effectiveness  in imparting legal empowerment to the masses.


In their efforts, community paralegals also face the challenge of a) being unable to provide consistent and quality legal aid due to their limited legal know how b) limited power over politically influential people and c) facing the risk of abuse in conducting their work.


Vivek presented a model of legal empowerment in which community paralegals play a central role (Fig. 1). They conduct case work with community members in need of legal aid (clients) and learn of their legal needsuse this experience to campaign for changes in the system that  in turn bring  positive changes in the form of reforms or new laws into the system that help them in their work. Vivek emphasized on the need for vertical networking amongst paralegals to bring about this systemic change.


Vivek then differentiated between paralegals, whom he called generalists, and specialists, discussing, subsequently, the pros and cons of both. The former group works on multiple legal issues and with multiple categories of victims; and are thereby responsive to diverse needs of the community but face a challenge to achieve systemic change. The latter group of specialists are more focused on specific forms of injustice (like issues of refugees, minorities, drug addicts etc.) who then may coordinate amongst themselves to address diverse legal needs of the community.


 The following session was conducted jointly byPurvi  Shah (founder of Movement Law Lab) and Marbre Butts (Movement for Black Lives Policy Table). Purvi introduced the participants to a power-based approach to lawyering & legal advocacy that she calls ‘movement lawyering for social change’. This form of lawyering emphasizes on the “why”, “how” and “for who” questions of lawyering. According to her, law is partial towards supporting existing unfair powerful structures, and a social change is what lawyers should seek.


Power exists in different forms and can be summed up through the following phrases: power over/to/within/with . In order to achieve social change community organization is the key. Community organization includes the following steps:



a)      Identification of common problems and their solutions.


b)      Collective analysis of solutions and a strategy to achieve them.


c)       Builds democratic institutions, with a vision to take on future struggles.


According to Purvi, legal advocates are morally and strategically obliged to formulate organized communities and strengthen the base of power to achieve social justice. Community organization occurs when legal advocates campaign for relevant policy changes, create collective consciousness and provide legal services to those who need it the most.


Purvi’s presentation was followed by a case study of a project titled “Law for Black Lives”, addressing the issue of pre-trial detention in the United States. Marbre shared her experience of leading a community organization process in this campaign.


The second day of the course began with Marlon Manuel talking of his experience of organizing a campaign for Sumilao farmers, in Phillipines, for their land rights. He played an inspiring video of their struggle to achieve rights to their land with the help of the Alternate Lawyers Group. The video highlighted an awe-inspiring march by farmers, from Bukidnon to Manila, with the aim of gathering recognition for their campaign.


Vivek in his session, on this day, complemented Marlon’s work in the Phillipines of achieving systemic change in the legal ecosystem of the country. He presented a useful distinction between technocratic and democratic pursuits of justice (Fig. 2). He insisted on formulating a shared understanding among the participants on the need and importance of the democratic form of legal empowerment. This means a shift from service delivery towards building capacities to independently solving a legal problem; and a shift from expert driven reforms in the system to people driven reforms. Sehgal Foundation in their work on legal empowerment recognizes this distinction and emphasises on building capacities of not only clients but also of the public legal aid institutions. Our democratic pursuit of justice emphasises on women participation and we are proud of the fact that over 50% women are participants in our legal empowerment initiatives.


The following day saw Michele Leering (Executive Director, Community Advocacy and Legal Centre, Ontario) reiterate the power of collaborating with the government to bring about social justice. Her longstanding work in setting up and now leading the Community Advocacy and Legal Centre has made her believe in access to justice as ‘the theory of change’. Through their centre, the team provides a wide spectrum of services in multiple ways.


From her experience of interacting with different development professionals, she has concluded that lawyers can learn a lot from non-lawyers’ work on law, as they have a better understanding of concepts like occupational justice, health justice etc.


A key feature of their centre is the formal institutionalization of their centre as a part of the public legal aid system. She was excited to share the process of the same: a) gaining recognition of their independent non-profit status as a clinic (on invitation) b) Signing a Memorandum of Understanding  and constituting a board of directors elected by the community c) Sign an annual funding agreement with the provincial government (sourced from public funds).


The community elected board of directors plays a significant role in guiding the work of the clinic and they have made it a point that the chairperson is someone who is empathetic to the needs of the communities. Another key achievement is the setting up of an inter-clinic community organization for coordinated efforts for policy advocacy.


Few suggestions that she had for the participants included:


  • Giving due recognition to documenting case information that is deal with.
  • Insist on early intervention prior to the need for legal aid (for which they have set up a project on legal health check up).
  • Work on building trust with intermediaries (volunteers, professionals like teachers, doctorsetc., members connected to the judicial system, professional advocates).


She also stressed on conducting legal needs research in law schools (for which they have set up a project to introduce new books and resource materials in public libraries). More information on the initiatives and relevant resources is available for download on:


Margaret Satterthwaite (Professor Clinical Law, Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights) was the next presenter in the session on Learning from Program Data. As an economist and a social rights researcher, she briefly described differences between monitoring and evaluation of legal empowerment projects. She also spoke of the Theory of Change and demonstrated its effectiveness by giving an example of movement lawyering.


Talking of indicators, she introduced the participants to a new methodology of designing indicators (beyond the typical SMART approach). This form of participatory and accountable indicators is known by the acronym SPICED which stands for the following:


  • (S)ubjective: communities have essential insights that should be captured in data collection efforts.
  • (P)articipatory: the communities we serve should be engaged in selecting indicators.
  • (I)nterpretable and communicable: locally-relevant indicators should make sense beyond their immediate context.
  • (C)ross-checked: check the validity of your indicators against data gathered through other means to ensure that it is measuring what you want to measure.
  • (E)mpowering: by setting indicators in a participatory way, we can ensure that the empowerment program is shifting power toward the community.
  • (D)iverse and disaggregated: data should be collected about and from all relevant stakeholders; ensure disaggregation for the variables that are most relevant to the obstacles to legal empowerment in the context of the program.


(Adapted from: Better Evaluation, Equal Access Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation Toolkit)


On the final day of the course, Sukhti Dhital (Deputy Director of Robert L Bernstein Institute for Human Rights) presented her brave work on labour rights of tea plantation workers in Assam, India, through Nazdeek (NGO) that she set up. She also briefly discussed the barriers to accessing services, and potential strategies for overcoming these barriers, in order to access public delivery services. Some of the advocacy activities in her project includes: a) hosting roundtables b) creating campaign/user awareness websites (for example see:   c) presenting the case of human rights violation to the World Bank (as some of their aid was used to support tea gardens in Assam) d) creating photostories with photojournalists. Her work saw the need for collaborating with data experts in the field, for which she collaborated with Jaspreet Singh Kalra (International Centre for Advocates Against Discrimination, United States). Together the teamhas demonstrated a community monitoring system through crowdseeding technology:  and    


The concluding session was held by Michael Otto (Global Network Officer, Namati) who spoke of Namati’s Justice For All Campaign (launching in Jan 2018) with two objectives  a) increased financing for access to justice and legal empowerment and b) increased protective regulations for justice defenders/paralegals. He also announced a conference that they are planning to hold in April 2018 at Bernstein Institute, New York University (NYU) on the status of research on legal empowerment.


5. My Takeaways from The Course


Meg’s presentation was followed by group work that I was particularly excited about. It was a practical session where we were to discuss our research problem/problem statement with the group members. I drew a lot of insights on the different forms of research activities that are being conducted in this field:


  • Research work in this the  field of legal empowerment research can be categorized into three strands a) research that looks at legal aid practice and its relationship with the State b) Impacts of legal aid practice on democratic institutions c) the nature of threats and risks that paralegals across the world face in the practice of legal aid, and effective means to manage these threats.
  • In the session, I was introduced to Arpeeta Nizam (Faculty, University of Dhaka) who shared her frustration regarding the lack of resources for teaching her students the practice of legal aid. I offered to share with her the reports/publications of Sehgal Foundation on the topic, and she was keen to learn more about the course on law and governance that the foundation conducts with law students at Jindal Global University.
  • The group discussions helped me reframe my research question to: “How does interaction between different legal aid practitioners in India play out? How can we facilitate effective collaboration amongst the stakeholders by altering the nature/form of this interaction?”


Apart from these rigorous sessions, the course had participatory and fun activities like quizzes (with prizes), and ice breaking activities that made the sessions more interactive.


I look forward to a continued engagement with the course participants on their journey to provide access to justice for all!




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