Justice For All: A Comparative Research on the Use of Paralegals in The U.S. (…)…and Abroad to Help Narrow the Access to Justice Gap
This research aims to compare and contrast the use of paralegals in the United States and abroad as a primary alternative to tackle the access to justice crisis experienced by multiple countries across the globe. The introductory portion of this research presents the access to justice gap as well as the different contributing factors leading to this issue. The second portion refers to the role of paralegals, specifically within the U.S. justice system, and the relatively recent expansion of this profession in terms of educational opportunities and limitations in the field. The third portion analyzes the proposed increased integration of paralegals as intermediators between citizens and legal institutions as an alternative to reduce the access to justice gap. The fourth section introduces the topic of community paralegals and its recent yet accelerated growth abroad to increase community engagement in the legal field.
The following four sections compare and contrast specific examples of the use and impact of community paralegals in Canada, Sierra Leone, Nepal and Ecuador. The ninth portion of this paper describes organizations that have been working to achieve an increasing access to legal resources and empowerment in order to meet the legal needs of multiple communities on an international level. Finally, the last portion of this research offers a conclusion on the evidence analyzed and reflects on the use of paralegals as a significant alternative in order to continue effectively reducing the access to justice gap around the world.
Factors Leading to Unmet Legal Needs in The U.S. and Abroad
Inherent to the concept of justice is the idea that law should be imparted fairly and equally to all citizens. Surprisingly, there is a substantial portion of the world population that faces difficulties to meet its legal needs. In the absence of equal access of justice throughout the world, many communities face the struggle of successfully exercising their rights through adequate legal representation. Throughout the years, multiple organizations have been signaling this issue and calling for the need of justice systems that provide viable representation to all individuals under the law, including vulnerable and marginalized groups.
There are multiple factors that contribute to the gap in the access of justice in different countries. In The United States, research has shown a large part of the population does not tend to think of many of their problems in legal terms; they fail to take such situations to legal advisors or legal institutions because the use of the justice system is not considered at all in most cases. Most American citizens will rather identify such problems as social, private or moral issues, or simply the result of unfortunate circumstances, and fail to consider the justice system as a tool to reach resolution (Sandefur, 2015).
Another factor that plays a crucial role in the reluctance of many communities in the U.S. to seek legal assistance stems from a financial challenge. Although pro – bono programs are a certainly beneficial resource for low – income populations to access justice, these programs tend to be understaffed in comparison to the demand generated by the amount of individuals in need of their services. Having one of the highest world concentration of lawyers, it is striking to learn that the U.S. is ranked a hundred and eighth out of a hundred and twenty eight countries in the accessibility to justice (National Coalition for A Civil Right to Counsel, 2020). Although the volume of legal unmet need in the country is not clear in statistical terms, research points to the fact that a large portion of the individuals who seek legal assistance to government founded programs is often turned away due to a lack of resources and availability (Cummings, 2017). Other factors include a public preference to meet legal needs without resourcing to lawyers, which seems to originate from a perceived distrust shared mostly by low – income communities.
The issue seems to stem from an apparent disconnection between courts and the justice system in relation to lawyers and the general public. Two – thirds of parties involved in litigation processed in state laws choose to proceed pro se, meaning through representation for oneself. When it comes to civil trial cases, as many as three – fourths of the cases involve at least one party without a lawyer (Cummings, 2017). As a result, potential alternatives that rise in an attempt to increase a sense of connectivity between the population and legal institutions include the improvement of the role played by certified non – lawyer professionals through the expansion of organizational and technological innovations.
The Role of Paralegals in the Legal Field and the Justice System
In the U.S., paralegals perform multiple duties that play a crucial role in the functioning of the justice system. Their functions include conducting client interviews and maintaining contact with such clients; locating, contacting and interviewing potential witnesses, and conducting legal investigations by obtaining, evaluating and organizing case evidence. Paralegals are also responsible for maintaining procedure deadlines and filing corresponding documents, organizing and updating client information and files, and drafting a vast majority of legal documents. Other tasks include, but are not limited to, filing court documents and other materials such as witness testimonies and attending litigations and court proceedings s legal assistant.
As essential as the work of paralegals in the justice system proves to be, the corresponding education programs available for this profession began to expand relatively recently in the U.S. Prior to the late 1960s, there were no formal education programs available to individuals who wished to contribute to a positive impact in the access of American justice without necessarily obtaining a traditional degree in law. Attorneys were the first to realize that, in addition to being more cost – effective, paralegals substantially improve the outcome of legal procedures for both law firms and clients. An increasing demand for individuals trained in the field consequently led to the expansion of the educational programs available. In the country. Today, the are over a thousand paralegal training and certification programs functioning in the U.S., with varying designs that aim to fit the needs and preferences of multiple individuals interested in such career. Programs include two – year community college degrees such as an associate in arts, an associate in science or a paralegal certificate, four – year bachelor’s degrees with both majors and minors available in paralegal studies and additional certificate programs offered by private institutions lasting from three to eighteen months. There are also additional postgraduate programs available requiring a bachelor’s degree, as well as Master’s degree programs, many of them offered online and often concentrating in specific areas of law.
Paralegals as an Alternative to Narrow the Access to Justice Gap in The U.S.
Taking into account the extensive performance of paralegals in the field, it is reasonable to consider that they are the most indicated professionals to reduce the gap in the access of justice experienced by a large portion of the population. However, regulation limits paralegals in terms of client representation. In most cases, paralegals must work under the supervision of an attorney, and they are not allowed to give legal advice except for very specific circumstances, according to limitations regarding the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL).
Nevertheless, recent initiatives in several states to authorize the limited practice of law exercised by licensed nonlawyer paraprofessionals seem to be an alternative in order to allow low – income communities to meet their legal needs. In comparison to paralegals, licensed nonlawyer paraprofessionals can potentially provide legal services without the supervision of an attorney. The first state to pioneer the use of limited licensed paraprofessionals was Washington state. Through the adoption of the Admission and Practice Rule 28 in 2003, Washington state began to authorize the practice of LLLT’s, or limited licensed legal technicians. LLLT’s perform specific legal services and are subject to certain educational requirements, such as an associate’s degree or higher as well as the completion of specifically designated coursework. In addition, LLLT’s must perform over three thousand hours of paralegal work and pass multiple law and ethics exams, along with a character and fitness review (McGlone, 2018). Similarly to lawyers and paralegals, LLLT’s are regulated under the code of professional conduct which also involves disciplinary processes.
The state of Utah followed Washington’s initiative and authorized licensed paralegals to assist the general public in areas such as eviction issues, family law and consumer debt cases. By completing all the tasks that were mentioned earlier, paralegal practitioners make access to justice available to a larger portion of the population at a more affordable cost. The role these paralegals play is crucial, as statistics show that almost all cases particularly in the area of debt collection are underrepresented (Utah State Bar, 2020). While the limitations for permissible work concerning limited license paraprofessionals varies depending on the model the state chooses to adopt, it certainly contributes to increasing the understanding of legal proceedings for clients and results in improved assistance and ultimate client satisfaction.
The Rise of Community Paralegals Abroad
The issue of lack of access to justice is not exclusive to the U.S. Multiple countries have been experiencing similar difficulties in the recent years, and developed different initiatives to promote the access to legal assistance to communities that face a challenge to meet their legal needs. The rise of community paralegals as an approach to increase the connectivity between individuals from these communities and legal institution has been experiencing a large expansion. Community paralegals use their knowledge and training in the field to improve paths towards the resolution of legal issues through mediation, advocacy and education (Namati, 2020). At the same time, they increase a sense of autonomy and engagement among clients. Unlike traditional paralegals, the main task of community paralegals is not to assist attorneys but to work directly with communities and engaging them in their legal processes.
Community Paralegals in Canada
Canada has been slowly introducing the use of community paralegals to provide legal assistance in their more remote, northern regions. The challenge many communities in Canada face in order access legal service is caused by factors varying from scattered population through large distances, extreme climates and cultural issues regarding native communities. Particularly in circuit courts, attorneys struggle to meet with defendants and witnesses and prepare cases during extremely short periods of time. Cultural complexities also play a role in the gap for access to justice: many native communities fear or experience discomfort in terms of legal processes due to the challenges involved and consequently tend to discard the option to pursue their fair defense. Research shows that there is substantial imbalance between the availability of legal services for civil advisement compared to criminal advisement. This issue particularly affects women in most communities in northern Canada, because they often require assistance on civil issues rather than criminal issues (Currie, 1992).
In order to address this issue, certain organizations began hiring paralegals located in more remote communities. These paralegals work under direct and indirect supervision of attorneys, but the fact that they belong to those regions and are fluent in both English and Cree (a native language of the northern regions of Canada) allows them to maintain a close – contact relationship with their clients. It is important to notice that native communities in the area have substantially lower average incomes and higher rates of unemployment, causing individuals who belong to these communities to experience significant challenges in order to seek legal services. These paralegals operate legal clinics in the communities in order to increase awareness of the services available, while also assisting particular cases. The project has shown to increase access to legal assistance and improve the overall communication between attorneys and clients, as well as legal institutions and clients. In response to the previously mentioned issue regarding the lack of legal assistance in civil cases such as family law cases, this initiative has successfully expanded the use of legal services in this area of law.
Grassroots Innovations in Sierra Leone
Another example for the successful implementation of community paralegals is the Tinap for Peace and Development Organization in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The organization is an initiative created by Grassroots Innovations and developed by Namati’s Legal Empowerment Network. While a large portion of the population in these communities is low – income and illiterate, they tend to lack the resources to seek proper defense and legal representation (The Open Society Foundations, 2012). The paralegals in this organization actively engage with the community in order to avoid cases that can be resolved through mediation and increased communication to go to court.
Community paralegals in Sierra Leone go to prisons on a daily basis and talk to suspects in order to learn about their case. By doing this, they are able to provide legal assistance through work that involves increasing awareness of the law, advising clients on legal proceedings and alternative options, mediating disputes between community members and law enforcement and advising clients on how to navigate legal institutions and authorities. The result is an increased sense of empowerment in the community by encouraging awareness on legal issues and promoting the active exercise of the clients’ rights.
SASANE in Nepal
In Nepal, SASANE functions in a similar manner. Samrakshak Samuha Nepal originated from the need to protect and defend victims of human trafficking. It was formed in 2008 by human trafficking survivors themselves with the mission to provide different forms of assistance to women and children at risk, including legal training and services. The paralegals in SASANE are trained specifically to assist victims in getting justice, given that only about 10% of human trafficking survivors in Nepal file complaints and pursue legal action. Since it was founded, the program has created over a hundred certified paralegals and filed over four thousand complaints involving women and children who were victims to human trafficking (Cineminga International, 2016).
The organization also focuses on community empowerment through the use of awareness and advocacy programs. SASANE has also established rehabilitation and reintegration residences in Pokhara and Kathmandu in order to provide a support network and improve the educational and work opportunities of survivors, and build financial independence. They work with rural educators to help raise awareness on the issue of human traffic and address at risk communities, while also instructing survivors in different professional fields and work skills.
ECOLEX in Ecuador
Another organization located in South America focuses on the use of community paralegals to target specific needs experienced by native populations, especially regarding environmental legal issues. ECOLEX Ecuador, also one of Namati’s international partners, promotes the exercise of legal rights through local paralegals in both rural and native areas. ECOLEX community paralegals work towards sustainable ecologic development in different areas of Ecuador by proposing innovative mediation alternatives (ECOLEX Ecuador, 2014). These paralegals also work in continuously developing agreements and contracts with the government as well as other national public organizations to preserve the cultural and environmental integrity of the community.
Community paralegals in ECOLEX are trained in the Community Paralegal Training and Formation Program (Namati, 2012). Once they are trained, they continue to provide legal services mainly regarding environmental law and policy in order to reduce socio – environmental conflicts in the communities. By doing so, they encourage members of the community to become involved and increase their sense of autonomy in the Ecuadorian justice system. In addition, they conduct workshops and educational events to inform the public about legal aspects of natural resource management in their communities. ECOLEX paralegals also plan and design legislative proposals regarding current environmental issues and advocate about alternative conflict resolution methods through the ECOLEX’s Socio – environmental Conflict Mediation Center.
Organizations Working to an International Level
In addition to local organization that function on a national level to provide access to justice in their communities, organizations that pursue similar goals have developed over the last decades to reach this effect to an international extent. The Open Society Foundation, founded in 1993 by George Soros, has become one of the largest private organizations funding independent groups that work to narrow the access to justice gap across the globe (The Open Society Foundations, 2020). The organization’s main goal is to empower communities by ensuring the access to law and justice through legal action and proper legal assistance and education. Their main focus is on promoting community – based training and assistance in order to increase the level of connectedness between communities and the justice system by increasing awareness and employing innovative approaches to legislation and policy.
Similarly, Namati was founded in 2011 by Vivek Maru in order to pursue the growth of legal empowerment through the implementation of community paralegals. Today, Namati works with over two thousand partner organizations to continue expanding the Legal Empowerment Network and reduce the challenges experienced by many countries to achieve equal access to justice. In countries like Sierra Leone, where communities continue to heal from deeply rooted civil belligerent conflicts, Namati operates by training and promoting the work of small groups of lawyers and paralegals that provide legal assistance to the population. Namati describes this method as “grassroots innovations”, where grassroots legal representatives assist communities in tackling current justice issues (Namati, 2012). Through specified targeted work, the organization aims to promote sustainable and fair development in legally empowered communities.
The access to justice gap and the disconnection between citizens of multiple countries and their justice system are issues that continue to have an impact on many individuals across the world. Undoubtedly, the groups that prove to be the most vulnerable to this problem are impoverished and marginalized communities that face innumerable challenges to access proper and affordable quality representation and advisement in the legal field. Over the last decades, multiple organization, both to a national and international level, have developed to help narrow the access to justice gap. It is arguably through the expansion in the training and use of paralegals and analogous paraprofessionals trained in the legal field and engaged in the communities, particularly the ones at risk, that this improvement can ultimately be accomplished. Such fair and accessible justice system for all citizens under the law is undeniably an essential tool towards sustainable peace and equality in society, and ultimately beneficial for the wellbeing of all individuals.
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