Image Source: Pacific Air Forces
April 2018
REGION: East Asia and the Pacific

In “The Promise and Peril of Paralegal Aid,” Geoffrey Swenson reflects on the theory and practice, as well as future implications, of paralegal aid programs. He defines paralegals as “lay people with basic training in law and formal government who assist poor and otherwise disempowered communities.” Swenson begins with a broad analysis of existing perceptions of paralegals and paralegal programs, and their influence in effectively promoting rule of law and access to justice. Swenson notes there is broad consensus that paralegal programs are positive programs that successfully achieve their goals. He argues, however, that analyses of these programs often lack sufficient emphasis on the inevitable obstacles they will face. Additionally, Swenson proposes recommendations for future programs, including recommendations related to implementers of paralegal programs addressing the tensions between formal and informal justice systems.  

After a brief historical overview of Timor-Leste’s justice system, Swenson examines two case studies in Timor-Leste: the Avocats Sans Frontièrs (ASF) Grassroots Justice Project and the Asia Foundation’s Access to Justice Program. ASF established a network of paralegals in three districts in Timor-Leste, seeking to assist disadvantaged groups, increase compliance with basic human rights, advance democratic ideals and promote the rule of law within Timor-Leste. The Asia Foundation program broadly sought to promote access to and improve the functions of the justice sector. After the 2006 political crisis in Timor-Leste, the focus of the program shifted towards forming effective collaboration by training paralegals to serve as a connection between the formal justice system and local dispute mechanisms. 

Swenson explains that the ASF and Asia Foundation programs effectively reached previously inaccessible rural areas and increased citizen access to legal services and formal justice institutions. He argues that paralegal-mediated disputes were generally resolved much faster and were more cost-effective than those adjudicated in state courts. The programs also marginally increased the state’s compliance with basic human rights, just as their objectives had called for. In discussing these outcomes, Swenson reaffirms existing, positive perceptions of the impacts that paralegal programming can have.  

However, Swenson also argues that these programs faced challenges. For example, with so many levels in the structure of the programs, and multiple third-party influencers, such as state officials and community leaders, accountability and oversight of paralegals were difficult. This contributed to large knowledge gaps in the monitoring and evaluation of paralegals by program implementers. The conflict between formal and informal justice actors was also a challenge. Both sets of actors must collaborate in order for the program itself to be successful. Swenson also notes that sustainability was a challenge after donor funding ended. Finally, he argues that inadequate compensation can discourage commitment by paralegals, and too much compensation, though it contributes to independence from the community, can encourage dependence on donor funds and a profit incentive. 

Swenson concludes that the two programs have wide-reaching implications for future paralegal programming. The two case studies prove that paralegal aid can in fact assist in increasing access to justice and promoting rule of law in post-conflict states. However, the ability of paralegal programs to do so in the face of numerous obstacles must be shown rather than assumed, as it has been in the past. Finally, Swenson argues that future paralegal programming needs to consider the best ways to create an environment that is conducive to formal and informal justice actors collaborating effectively, rather than ignoring the tensions between the two. Without this collaboration, goals such as advancing rule of law and addressing existing human rights violations will be all but impossible.

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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