Image Source: Jaimoen87
April 2017
REGION: Global

In “What Do We Know about Legal Empowerment? Mapping the Evidence,” Laura Goodwin and Vivek Maru provide an overview of existing knowledge regarding the effects of civil society-led legal empowerment efforts, which they define as “those that seek to increase the capacity of people to understand and use the law.” As of 2017, the United Nations Commission on Legal Empowerment estimates four billion people view the law as “an abstraction, or a threat, but not something they can use to exercise their basic rights.” Legal empowerment efforts seek to reverse that trend, but the impact of those efforts is not fully understood. The success of such efforts, as well as eliminating knowledge gaps, is essential to providing more effective interventions in the future. To that end, this article offers the first comprehensive overview of knowledge about civil society-led legal empowerment efforts, reviewing a total of 199 relevant studies from around the world.

The authors survey the most common legal empowerment approaches, including legal literacy, citizen participation in governance, community mobilization and advocacy, and mediation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Examples of these approaches include the creation of legal literacy classes, building the capacity of women to monitor national budgets, creating citizen scorecards and expenditure tracking, and adopting ADR strategies to protect natural resources. Most interventions involved more than one legal empowerment approach.

The impacts of various legal empowerment strategies are categorized into two types: (1) changes that affected individuals, and (2) changes that affected public institutions. Out of 191 studies, 183 identified at least one positive change on “citizens and consciousness.” The most common effects on individuals were increased agency (the willingness to act, as well as actual action), increased legal knowledge, the acquisition of legal remedies, and effective conflict resolution. Impacts were also observed that resulted in changes to citizen status, social inclusion, health, education, and income. Out of 111 studies, 89 found impacts on institutions that changed laws, policy, or practice. The five most common strategies to contribute to institutional change were advocacy, community monitoring, human rights commissions, ombudsman offices, and public interest litigation. Institutional impact was most obvious in the area of accountability for basic services, like schools and hospitals. Evidence also showed institutional changes for issues like corruption, women’s rights, abuse of public office, and land and natural resource rights.

This study of legal empowerment efforts suggests that there is more evidence of the efficacy of legal empowerment interventions than previously thought. Substantial evidence exists to support the conclusion that legal empowerment has led to a variety of positive changes for individuals and institutions. The authors recommend that additional research be conducted to fill the gaps in our understanding about legal empowerment strategies and the positive changes they can provide. A growing body of knowledge will allow governments and civil society to enhance evidence-based decisions as the field expands.


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

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