Legal empowerment – dodging the bullet but spreading the fire

Stay in the same place long enough and what goes around, comes around. Thus it was that ‘legal empowerment’ as a goal of legal services has emerged again almost as if no one else remembered the 1970s. It was then a big issue among UK law centres (and no, doubt, others) split on whether the point was to minimise or maximise the impact of lawyers on their clients’ lives. The Open Society Justice Initiative piggybacked on the Legal Services Technical Issues conference which runs later in the week to have a ‘Global Convening on Empowerment and Technology’ today in New Orleans.

Wisely, the convenors dodged the often sterile discussion of a definition in favour of examination of the specific. And, thus, debate roved through the empty wastelands of Mongolia; through more crowded Moldova; into the chaos that was the response to The hurricane  in Puerto Rico; the frenzy of immigration representation in the US; the role of technology and collocation of legal with health provision in Alaska; and out into the sunlit uplands of academic analysis by Dr Rebecca Sandefur (watch out for her forthcoming publication) and Georgetown University Law Center’s Professor Tanina Rostain.

The common lessons were interesting. We might as well take Mongolia as an example because this sparsely populated, still noticeably nomadic state, provides some of exactly the same lessons as you would take from the U.K.  A real digital divide remains even though around 60 per cent of the population have access to the internet and smart phones. A justice needs survey, funded by the Mongolian Soros Foundation in 2016, had emphasised the need for people to be able to rely on trusted intermediaries.

One interesting distinctive Mongolian intervention was a legal portal that brought together justice issues and encouraged participation in the drafting of new legislation. Online justice hub sought to bring together paralegals, pro bono lawyers and public defenders. In a world where Georg Soros has attracted increased hostility, he should take heart  to hear of the success of his foundations both in Mongolia and Moldova – where the local Soros Foundation  can legitimately claim to have completely transformed legal aid.

Puerto Rico provided the example of Ayuda Legal which, with help initially from Louisiana services that had faced the same problems, seems to have played a blinder in helping post hurricane victims. Its list of lessons was interesting. Develop coalitions inside and outside the countrY. A statewide website could become hub for activity. Have a website that clearly shows what you are doing. Effective and disaster-ready a2j tech initiatives require dependable and continuous contact with communities. Popular legal education can foster long lasting relationships with communities which must be part of planning. Shift language from access to justice to social justice. Go beyond access to justice communities. Mentorship is a must. The main requirement is the trust of your community. Control the media coverage to the extent that you can. A needs survey is helpful to prioritise services and support bids for funding.

At the end we came back to the US. But it could just as well have been the U.K.  Most apps, said Dr Sandefur, were based on twenty year old approaches. They were too text based when we know that, according to Professor Rostain, that 29 per cent of year 8 school students do not have the skills to read a book. 

So, throw in the really tricky questions that kept bubbling up – if only to be suppressed for now – like the meaning of legal empowerment or, if you really want a challenge, ‘justice’ and the day covered considerable geographical, intellectual and political ground. The Open Society Justice Initiative has commissioned the consultancy, The Engine Room, to produce a paper on the issues. Keep an eye out for it. 

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