Legal Empowerment & Global Development

The rule of law is, in many ways, the unsung hero of peaceful civil society. Quietly getting on with its job, it is easily taken for granted but quickly missed when it breaks down or ceases to exist. It is increasingly being realised by the global community that empowering people in developing countries to better access the law and exercise basic legal rights can, in turn, help them better access other services such as health, education and other essential services and thereby pull themselves out of poverty - particularly in the case of culturally disempowered groups such as women and minorities.

But law is only as good as the access people have to it. The UN estimates that around 4 billion people around the world live outside the protection of the law. For these people the law is an abstraction, or even a threat, but not something they can use to exercise their basic rights. A stark but important example is Sierra Leone in West Africa. This is a country with a desperate shortage of lawyers - around 400 for a population of 6.2 million, with around 90% of the lawyers based in the capital Freetown - and, until recently, no functioning legal aid system at all.

A Community Paralegal in Uganda, East Africa

A Community Paralegal in Uganda, East Africa

The 'Community Paralegal' Model

It is in this context that organizations such as Namati are pioneering innovative solutions by partnering up with local NGO's to legally 'empower' people at a local level through the deployment of 'community paralegals' or 'grassroots advocates' on the frontline. If this model can be scaled up it could provide essential legal services in the short and medium term to millions of people around the world. In the longer term the aim is that data from its projects can be used to inform sound evidence-based structural reform. 


Criminal Justice - Legal Aid & Bail Projects

One of the most serious things a state can do to a person is take away their liberty, their freedom - for however short a time. It is reasonable to assume therefore that adequate safeguards, including legal aid, will be in place to prevent mistreatment and miscarriage of justice. The reality however is that in countries around the world people, including children, are routinely detained in police custody and pre-trial detention without access to any or effective legal aid. Important recommendations for reform are made in the UN Report Early Access to legal aid in criminal justice processes.

In my work as a criminal defence lawyer a common question I get asked (apart from "why do you represent guilty people?") is "what about the rights of the victim?" The answer to this is simple; the whole might of the state is brought into action on behalf of the victim - the police (and sometimes the security services), the prosecution service, the prison service and the probation service - whereas the accused person stands alone, completely alone. This is why legal aid is important - particularly in the early stages of the criminal process - at the police station and on remand.

My current focus is on bail projects - which aim to empower suspects and detainees with the tools necessary to make successful bail applications. 

Environmental Justice - Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) & Sustainable Fisheries

For billions of rural people, land is their greatest asset: the source of food and water, the site of their livelihoods, and the locus of history, culture, and community. In recent years, governments across Africa, Asia and Latin America have been granting, at an alarming rate, vast land concessions to national elites and foreign investors for agro-industry enterprises, forestry and mineral exploitation. Sustainable and appropriate investment is of course to be welcomed but without fair and 'empowered' negotiations, these investments may dispossess communities from their lands or lead to environmental degradation, human rights violations, loss of livelihoods, and inequity. In this context, protections for rural communities and their lands are urgently needed.

Namati’s Community Land Protection Program supports communities to follow national land documentation laws to protect their customary and indigenous land claims. The Program promotes an integrated community land documentation model that both supports communities to defend and protect their lands and natural resources as well as to leverage community land documentation processes to create positive intra-community change.

In the same way that rural communities depend on their land for their livelihoods, traditional coastal communities often depend on the sea for theirs. Legal empowerment can help equip communities with the skills to better protect their local marine environment from unsustainable development. Blue Ventures is developing an effective community-led holistic model of marine conservation in Madagascar.

Vivek Maru, founder of Namati, explains how legal empowerment