Legal Empowerment and Global Responses to Covid 19

The Covid 19 pandemic is providing a stimulus to the global legal empowerment movement. Namati, one of its leading organisations, held a webinar on Tuesday with an attendance of close to 300. This  discussed current developments in countries that included India, Argentina, North Macedonia and the Philippines. A slightly different network was involved in the commendably rapid publication of Justice for All and the Public Health Emergency by an organisation entitled Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, which is supported by the Netherlands Ministry of Justice and includes onetime Rechtwijzer developer, HiiL. 

Legal empowerment, as a modern movement, is very much associated with the work of Professor Stephen Golub. His ideas have had considerable resonance within international development over the last 20 years. As Namati phrases its goals, in language that follows his argument, they are to ‘put the power of law in people’s hands’ and to advance justice ‘by equipping people to know, use and shape the laws that affect them’. So, we are talking about assisted self-help. These ideas have been attractive to funders like the Open Society Foundation in its work in poorer countries and lie behind the UN’s articulation of its sustainable goal 16 which argues for ‘the provision of access to justice for all and for building effective, accountable institutions at all levels’. The UN goals may barely have registered in more internationally disdainful countries like the US and the UK. They have, however, had an important galvanising effect among poorer countries or those more sympathetic to their needs, such as The Netherlands.

There is little new under the sun and ideas of legal empowerment have roots which can be traced back to places like South Africa in the 1970s where paralegals were used to provide both legal and political education. The concept also flourished in the early days of law centre development, certainly in England and Wales. Legal empowerment is, in essence, an old idea whose time has come again. And lack of funds for traditional one-to-one forms of legal assistance will increase its attractiveness in many jurisdictions.

The concepts of legal empowerment and the associated development funding have encouraged the international approach manifest in the Namati webinar and the Pathfinders publication. The latter has behind it an international task force with an impressive (if clumsily worded) battery of assistance from multi-national co-chairs, ‘sherpas’, ‘elders’ and members. The Open Society Justice Initiative backs both.

Much of the value of the Pathfinders publication is in its attempt to develop an overall view of the crises that are developing. The basic thesis is that there are three interlocking elements:

 The public health crisis has triggered a wave of sickness and death in every country.

 An economic, employment, and financial crisis is hurting billions of people, especially those who are already vulnerable or disadvantaged.

 A political, social, and cultural dislocation will transform societies and could exacerbate violence and insecurity, with impacts in both fragile and conflict-affected countries as well as in stable countries.

The report presents a number of areas for urgent action:

 Enforce emergency measures fairly, by independently scrutinizing new measures and holding political leaders to account, introducing safeguards for at-risk communities, and encouraging and supporting justice actors to work in partnership with communities and respect human rights.

 Protect people from violence, by targeting hotspots where insecurity is growing, investing in legal aid and proactive outreach to victims of abuse, and creating safe spaces for people at risk of gender-based and domestic violence.

 Make people your partners, through institutions that listen to people’s justice problems and hold political leaders to account, and by working with community leaders and grassroots actors to tackle injustices and limit the pandemic’s impact on daily life.

 Reduce demand on justice systems, by stripping down services to essentials, releasing prisoners wherever possible, ceasing to arrest people for minor offences, preventing evictions, and postponing non-urgent civil cases.

 Increase innovation and smart working, by solving cases online or over the phone instead of in court, and by supporting grassroots and other justice providers to provide their services virtually.

 Protect the justice workforce, helping them stay healthy, making them a priority for testing programs, providing them with counselling and support, protecting them from violence, and making sure they are being paid and their labor rights are respected.

 Prepare for future disease containment phases, by ensuring new surveillance and testing strategies are in line with human rights standards, monitoring their implementation, and strengthening the institutional capacity to identify and respond to emerging justice problems.

One of the pandemic’s characteristics is that it is a genuinely global event – hitting almost every country in the world. US expert Whitney Adams pointed out to the Namati webinar that the differences were really just of timing. One group of countries, mostly in East Asia, were begin to control infection though none had returned to ‘normal’. A second group, including most of Europe and the US, were approaching or just coming off the peak of infection. A third group – among which were countries like India – had the opportunity to take action before major impact but face major problems in doing so. No one has previous experience of a pandemic like this but there are some, like those countries of West Africa, that have had a similar experience with ebola. The impact in low and middle income countries will be similar to those in richer ones. And the responses will be similar too: shielding for vulnerable populations, rigorous case finding, contact tracing, isolation and quarantining of contacts.  Many countries will try some variant of lockdown – being experienced by 92 per cent of the webinar participants. But, this will just buy time: it is unlikely to be effective in the longer time. Vaccines are a year or more away with some optimism for therapeutics to be begin to be available in the autumn.

The effects in poorer countries are likely to be magnified by their lack of resources and poverty but, in essence, will mirror those elsewhere. There will be particularly vulnerable populations at high risk of being centres for the epidemic – such as prisons. In India and elsewhere, this is leading to early release programmes but raising the issue of safe transit after release and of subsequent tracking. Informal housing settlements with shared facilities or none, like those existing in countries like Argentina, will similarly produce concentrations of cases – just as will overcrowded accommodation elsewhere. And the dependence on having a home to comply with a requirement to stay at home will be a shared issue. There will be increases in domestic violence and police abuse against those who are homeless or who travel outside the home for necessary but unauthorised activity. Around the world, women and girls will be particularly exposed for reasons which will include their disproportionate provision of informal care of others. Authoritarian regimes will be tempted by the possibilities of further restrictions of civil liberties and political protest. 

The problems and the responses will not be that different around the world. Social distancing will be important. To accommodate that, Sierra Leone developed toll free telephone advice lines during the ebola epidemic and this is one approach likely to be followed by advice agencies in many countries. The legal empowerment movement has the advantage of existing international networks at evidence in the work of Namati and the Pathfinders. Much learning that is likely to be transferable between countries. The pandemic will ruthlessly reveal that it does not impact to the same extent on the rich and the poor alike either internally within countries or externally by comparison between them. But, there may well be more similarity than difference in how we should rise to the challenge of providing justice and access to it during this difficult time. That is particularly the case as funds for traditional legal aid are put under pressure and the need for greater legal empowerment becomes more apparent around the globe. The Pathfinders’ observation that this is not just one public health crisis but three inextricably bound together is likely to be widely born out and needs to colour our response.


The picture shows a Coronavirus-free tree flourishing on Hampstead Heath in North London this morning.

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