Efforts to advance justice and improve the rule of law can be divided into two categories. One set of efforts—by far the better funded and more established of the two—focuses on state institutions, on improving the effectiveness and fairness of the courts, the legislature, the police, the health and education systems, etc. A second set of efforts, sometimes termed legal empowerment, focuses on directly assisting ordinary people, especially the poor, who face justice problems.
There are two primary reasons for complementing state-centered reforms with this second type of undertaking. First and most simply, institutional reform is slow and difficult, and there is a need to tend to those wounded by broken systems not yet fixed. Second—and this reason conceives of the poor as agents rather than as victims—lasting institutional change depends on a more empowered polity. One conventional method of providing legal empowerment is legal services, including criminal defense, civil legal aid, and public interest litigation. Another method, which has received increased support in the last twenty years, is legal and human rights education.
Education is a critical first step in giving people power. But education alone is often inadequate to change a person’s or a community’s capacity to overcome injustice. Legal services, at their best, can achieve concrete victories for the powerless against the powerful: an arbitrarily detained juvenile is released, a group of workers receives its wrongfully unpaid wages, an unjust law is overturned. But legal services have serious limitations. Lawyers are costly and in short supply. Courts are often slow, ineffective, and corrupt. Perhaps most significantly, the solutions afforded by litigation and formal legal process are not always the kinds of solutions desired by the people involved, and they do not always contribute meaningfully to the agency of the people they serve.
This Essay argues that the institution of the paralegal offers a promising methodology of legal empowerment that fits between legal education and legal representation, one that maintains a focus on achieving concrete solutions to people’s justice problems but which employs, in addition to litigation, the more flexible, creative tools of social movements.