[Member Spotlight] Community Access to Justice Programme

This Member Spotlight features an interview with Jessica Malegarie (@JessiMalegarie) and Fernando Macharelli (@FerMacharelli), from the Community Access to Justice Programme (Programa de Acceso Comunitario a la Justicia of the the Planning Secretariat of the Institutional Strengthening Commission of the Judicial Council of the Judiciary of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.

To read the interview in Spanish click here / Para leer la entrevista en español hagan clic aquí.

¿What is the mission of PACJu?

PACJu, created in 2014, is a program implemented by the Planning Secretariat of the Institutional Strengthening Commission of the Judicial Council of the Judiciary of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. PACJu works in the promotion, prevention and protection of rights with the aim of reducing the levels of discrimination and violence by strengthening dialogue and creating spaces of dialogue. The actions carried out under the program favor human rights education and demand the State to comply with its obligations.

PACJu builds a bridge between justice and people. Agents of the Judiciary participate as volunteers who give talks on rights in vulnerables neighborhoods and set up a responsible referral system. From the perspective of rights education, it promotes the empowerment of people; encourages co-responsibilities between individuals, the community and the State; raises awareness about the missions and responsibilities of the different government agencies and bodies; creates networks with a rights-based perspective; promotes debates about rights violations; provides training on existing regulations; makes guided referrals that connect the person whose right is violated with the adequate remedy; strengthens a legal culture with emphasis on human rights within the Judiciary Branch and promotes citizen participation.

“The talks bring together people who need to know about their rights. One comes and explains the problem. They help us morally and tell us what we can do, who we can turn to. When the talks came to the neighborhood, I felt that justice had arrived.” [Hortensia, participant in the series of talks in Soldati neighborhood].

What kind of problems/injustices does your legal empowerment work address?

Social problems are generated when the mechanisms of support, reciprocity and solidarity of the different groups that are left out of the social integration process are lost. Social problems, which are presented as a set of circumstances that challenge the role of Justice, are not only linked to poverty, but also to other issues such as health and education, conflict and cohesion mechanisms, civil and social rights. In other words, they emerge from the tension between society’s integration and disintegration.

Population movements, changes in family structures, different forms of violence, the emergence of new rights and social problems, have come up as new demands. PACJu works from the Judicial Council together with the Courts and the Offices of the Public Prosecutor, Public Guardian and Public Defender on access to justice (understood in a broad sense, i.e., comprising both formal channels involved in legal processes, and alternative and complementary conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the program’s methodology, which involves Justice leaving the courts and approaching citizens).

How are you using legal empowerment to address these issues?

In the last 20 years, profound progress has been made in the regulation of the protection of the rights of women, children and adolescents, migrant people and people with disabilities, to mention just a few groups. The adoption of international treaties, the enactment of national laws and the regulation of these laws indicate that the discussion no longer revolves around the recognition of these rights but around their enforcement.

The State, as the main operator of human rights policies, has an unavoidable responsibility to enforce them and this is why it has been expanding its presence in marginalized neighborhoods. PACJu builds a bridge between the people and the State, between the needs of citizens and the guarantee of their rights.

“[The Program offers] a space of trust in which we discuss issues that are difficult to share. All of us who participate feel that we have a place to talk and that we are listened to. We work on the need for information and concrete solutions.” [Silvia, leader of a social organization in the Carrillo neighborhood].

The dynamic works in two ways: on the one hand, we build a link that allows Justice to be closer to the people and, on the other hand, we focus on reducing the existing barriers to access rights, seeking that those in need of justice can and know how to get it. All of the interventions are done with an intersectional approach, acknowledging that the situation of each person is defined by the coexistence of certain characteristics, conditions and vulnerabilities. In this sense, the program focuses on reducing access barriers and putting the right in the hands of the people.

The Program is a system of social innovation that connects two populations: people from vulnerable neighborhoods whose rights have been violated, and employees of the Judiciary. It offers a space where they can meet without bureaucratic mediation or formalities. It also gives volunteers a more humane and close look at reality.

“Participating in the program is a way of humanizing justice, of listening to people. It makes us Judges sensitize ourselves in a different way in order to be able to pass our sentences. It gets us out of the bubbles in which we find ourselves on our benches.” [Silvina Manes, volunteer and Criminal, Contraventional and Misdemeanor Court Judge].

The volunteer system gives the Program and the Judiciary economic and strategic sustainability since volunteers join from any area and with different profiles. This working group becomes a community that helps people to learn more about their rights. In this way, the volunteers and the PACJu team form an homogeneous group in their responsibilities and an heterogeneous group in the help provided to the neighbors.

This group implements legal empowerment practices as dialogic constructions in which the holders of technical knowledge offer specific legal tools and in turn learn from the experiences and knowledge of the communities, also providing means to solve problems jointly while leaving installed capacities for future problems. The transformation takes place in the neighborhood and also within the Judicial Branch, as experiences in the neighborhoods shape new forms of attention within each judicial unit.

“Thanks to these workshops we shorten the distance and remove obstacles. We established changes in court through these learnings, for example at the front desk we take great care of the first contact of the people who attend, reviewing the forms and the taking of information, we speak slowly and offer assistance in case they require it.” [Rodolfo Ariza Clerici, volunteer and Criminal, Contraventional and Misdemeanor Court Judge]

“The notifying officers of the Judiciary are an essential tool for neighbors to have information about summons or judicial procedures that involve them, that is why each one of them participated in the series of talks, where they understood that arriving in time and form to these neighborhoods facilitates access to justice for people” [Ivana Frias, head of the notifying officers of the Judicial Branch of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires]

“My participation in the cycle of talks was fundamental to know the offices and dependencies of the Judiciary and NGOs and thus facilitate probation sentences to young people in conflict with criminal law”. [Ofelia Bravo, Department of Released Prisoners of the Judicial Branch of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires]

Why do you think legal empowerment is important to solve the aforementioned problems?

Legal empowerment arises in the cycle of talks; it manifests itself in the association between the State -as the one responsible for guaranteeing rights- and the community of neighbors -as the overseer of those guarantees. In each talk, volunteers help neighbors identify which is the violated right, referring the case to the most competent organism and indicating the information or procedures to be carried out in each case. Neighbors have to assume individual responsibility in identifying their situation and requesting help, advice and the diligence of their procedures. The community assumes the responsibility of accompanying that person and facilitating at the neighborhood level the tools to solve the problem. The State assumes the final responsibility for the resolution of the conflict.

Now, empowered neighbors review the situations they are going through from a rights’ perspective. They have technical tools to initiate procedures or claims, and after each new meeting they strengthen the system of trust in the community.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work and what are you doing to address them?

The most important challenge for the team has been the implementation of an ambulatory and systematic device with an interdisciplinary approach, the main objective of which was the connection between neighbors and their rights. This connection was achieved with a workshop methodology in the neighborhoods, where the role of the community is key. The visits are organized with legitimate leaders and they are presented proposals to develop talks on human rights to bring information and tools and thus make referrals to the corresponding public effectors, in order not only to resolve neighborhood conflicts but also to promote rights-based empowerment. The meetings are held where the people are, in homes, dining halls, health centers, squares, schools, retirement centers and others.

The construction of the circle of trust, under the participatory methodology in the talks, was another challenge. This methodology consists of allowing technical knowledge and laws to circulate together with popular knowledge and life experiences. There is an active participation of each neighbor with each volunteer and their specific knowledge on the subject. This space generates trust, comfort and warmth. Everyone’s word has the same value and equality prevails.

Commitment is what helps to carry this process forward. From there, the community’s collective values are identified as the axis of work, which are complemented with the formality of laws and the protection system’s effectors. Volunteers help to identify which right has been violated, refer to the competent body and indicate which procedure should be followed by the neighbors in each case, under a logic of responsible referral. The community assumes the responsibility of accompanying the neighbor and facilitating, at the neighborhood level, the tools to solve the problem and the neighbor has the responsibility to carry out the procedure to solve the problem.

Results / impact

Throughout PACJu’s history, around 100 people (70% women and 30% men) have participated as volunteers. Among them, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, sociologists and other professionals who work for the Judicial Council, the Courts and the Offices of the Public Prosecutor, Public Guardian and Public Defender: 47% of them were assistants, officers and department heads; 40% were secretaries and assistant secretaries; and 13% were Judges, Prosecutors and Advisors.

Likewise, 80 neighbourhood organizations have participated: 24% were civil associations, 24% were community kitchens, 20% were health centers, 12% were early childhood centers, 12% were retirement centers, 5% were schools, and 3% were private homes.

The Program has carried out 700 talks with the participation of around 6700 neighbors.

During the pandemic, the talks were held virtually and an active listening system was installed through which each consultation was referred to a volunteer specialized in the subject. PACJu adapted its methodology of action:

  • 30 talks on rights were held in virtual format through Zoom platforms and Whatsapp video calls.
  • 170 cases were carried out through the active listening system linking via phone calls a demand concerning a violated right with a volunteer.
  • 90 cases were handled with follow-up for their restitution and guidance in the management of procedures.

In 2020, the referral and follow-up system tripled, reaching an effectiveness of 65%.

Do you have any recommendations for other members of the Network?

The ambulatory and systematic work modalities are vital to us. The first one, which consists of holding talks in different neighborhoods, aims at reducing the inequalities that exist due to the remoteness of peripheral communities. The second one is fundamental to build more trust with members of marginalized neighborhoods so that they can talk about their problems and denaturalize certain situations that imply violations of their rights.

On the other hand, volunteering is a self-sustainable system that allows employees and officials of the Judicial Branch to interact with members of marginalized neighborhoods through workshops, conversation circles or capacity-building initiatives. This generates an extraordinary change within the Judicial System: it helps to adapt the State’s practices to the needs of marginalized communities. Volunteers donate a few hours of their working day to leave the office and work in the different marginalized neighborhoods, bringing justice closer to where people are. When they return, enriched by the experience, they incorporate changes, for example, regarding the way they approach the cases they have to deal with. The treatment of neighbors is hence de-standardized and empathy is generated.

PACJu works with neighborhood leaders, who act as facilitators of the talks. They are a necessary link to generate trust among the group that will share its experiences and problems. In the early years, there was no follow-up of the cases with responsible referral. The PACJu team and the volunteers only explained where to go and how to act, but the results were not verified. Since 2019, the work has been comprehensive and there is a follow-up that reinforces the fundamental concept of trust among the participants. In this way, by building databases, we evaluate the quality of the entire process: talks, referrals, results and installed capacity.

Do you have a book recommendation, quote, resource, piece of artwork or music that keeps you inspired and motivated?

Music inspires us, it moves us to continue building bridges in our city, that’s why every time we meet and invite someone to a talk we listen to it. These are two songs that have historically driven us to continue working:

You can learn more about the Community Access to Justice Programme on their website.

If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below

_Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network at #memberspotlight.

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