How are paralegals/grassroots legal advocates accountable to their clients and the communities where they work?

Part of our work is ensuring that service providers are accountable to their communities. Paralegals/grassroots legal advocates also provide services to communities, how are they accountable to their clients and the communities they work? What accountability mechanisms are there in the various programs that our clients and communities would use to hold paralegals/grassroots legal advocates accountable? How do we make our clients and constituent community aware of the redress mechanism in our programs?

One of our partners uses a client care letter, this letter is given to every client on the first day of meeting, and it explains what the organisation does, services they provide and what they should expect from the paralegal. More importantly it shows how, where and to whom clients will channel their complaints if the paralegal fails to provide satisfactory service.

Here is an example of the letter:

CLIENT CARE LETTER _Access to Justice Law Centre.docx (74.6 KB)


Thanks for sharing this @danielsesay. Really important topic. I think it makes sense to do some form of a ‘terms of engagement’, similar to the client care letter you posted, with all our clients, whether in a case supporting a single family to get identity documents or an effort to support an entire community to secure tenure over their land.

Client feedback mechanisms can also be a useful way of strengthening accountability- see a related thread initiated by @lauragoodwin.

Another option is some sort of community oversight body. Here’s an article about community oversight boards by Timap for Justice co-founder Simeon Koroma.

Here’s an excerpt on this topic from the comparative chapter of our forthcoming book, which looks at paralegal efforts across 6 countries. ( @tobiaseigen, is there a place on discourse where it’d make sense to share the entire comparative chapter in draft form? It’s not yet a public document).

To whom are paralegals accountable

Paralegals regularly make subjective judgments about justice in the course of their work. They choose which cases to take on and, for intra-community cases, they often choose sides among people whom the paralegals would regard equally as constituents.

How do we know those choices will be judicious, and that the community’s trust will not be abused? In many places there is a class of people who offer themselves as legal intermediaries—in the Philippines they are called abogadillos, literally “small lawyers,” in Indonesia makelar kasus, in Sierra Leone blackman lawya. These intermediaries charge fees for their services and are often exploitative. A paralegal from Quezon Province in the Philippines told of an abogadillo charging five thousand pesos (around 120 USD) to secure an order from the Department of Agrarian Reform that was officially available for free.

There is a risk—though we encountered no specific examples in our six studies–that paralegals similarly use their knowledge to exploit others. State regulation can mitigate that risk—we will discuss that possibility in the section on institutional determinants below. Organizations themselves also have a role.

This begins by selecting community paralegals who are aligned with an organization’s values and mission. Most programs studied here search for people who have the respect of fellow community members and who have demonstrated a commitment to public service. Once paralegals begin, vertical supervision and support from senior paralegals or lawyers is crucial, as we have discussed above. That supervision is intended in part to ensure that paralegals are abiding by the principles of justice and human rights on which paralegal efforts are based.

Equally important is accountability of paralegals to the people they serve. Dugard and Drage found “embeddedness in communities,” the fact that paralegals live among their clients and can therefore take a holistic approach to their problems, to be one of the most positive features of South African community advice offices. This was a common observation across all six studies and indeed is one of the key arguments in favor of a paralegal approach. But as the phenomenon of abogadillos and their counterparts suggests, embeddedness does not guarantee virtue.

Many organizations seek to establish formal structures to ensure accountability. The Social Change Assistance Trust in South Africa requires advice offices it supports to be governed by management committees that include community representatives. The committees in turn must regularly hold open community meetings to review performance. In Indonesia and the Philippines, many paralegals are a part of membership organizations like farmers’ associations and trade unions, and are therefore answerable to their fellow members. In Sierra Leone, Timap for Justice has community oversight boards in every chiefdom; the boards are charged with ensuring that the paralegals are serving the constituent community effectively. We do not have hard data on the impact of these structures, but our impression is that some mechanism for ensuring local accountability is crucial for paralegals’ legitimacy.


This is a great topic! :green_heart:

Good question. :slight_smile: Discussions here are public but are not indexed by Internet search engines (unless featured as news our resource comments on (Update: we changed this so now forum discussions do show up in google searches). So I think you can safely share the full draft here, maybe as a PDF attachment if it’s long.

If the chapter is still going to change significantly I’d suggest you share it via a Google Doc and post the link here. That way you have the option to limit access to the specific people who request access to it, then when it has served its purpose you can remove it.

Ping me directly if you need guidance on how to do this.