[Member Spotlight] Group of Public Action (Grupo de Acciones Públicas)

This month we feature an interview with Paola Marcela Iregui-Parra (@PaolaMarcelaIreguiParra), Laura Serna, y Anamaría Sánchez (@AnamariaSanchez) from Grupo de Acciones Públicas de la Universidad del Rosario, in Colombia. The legal clinic was selected as 1 of the 6 winners of the Legal Empowerment and Community Lawyering Innovation Lab initiative for Latin America, organized by the Legal Empowerment Network, with the support of the Tinker Foundation.

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

Which is the mission of the Grupo de Acciones Públicas?

The Grupo de Acciones Públicas (GAP) of the Universidad del Rosario was created with the aim to incorporate clinical legal education to the teaching of law in order to train changemakers though the practical teaching of strategic litigation in favour of marginalized communities whose access to justice has been hindered.

The GAP has two goals: a pedagogical one, which has to do with the training of students with regards to strategic litigation for human rights and public interest; and a social responsibility approach, which looks to positively impact marginalized communities, accompanying their empowerment so that they can take on the fight for their collective rights.

Since its foundation in 1999, the GAP has trained more than 350 students and developed with them high impact strategic litigation, through training research, community education, social and political advocacy, and judicial actions -in particular, constitutional actions.

What kind of issues or injustices does your legal empowerment work address?

Our work focuses on the protection of the rights of communities in a situation of vulnerability, access to justice, and the attention to legal collective needs. We address a diversity of issues. Those most recurrent are: damage to the environment (construction of extractive or hydroelectrical megaprojects, poor solid waste management), lack of access to public services and information, actions against the rights of users and consumers, and norms that violate constitutional rights -in particular, right to equality.

How are you using legal empowerment to address such issues?

We approach socially complex circumstances where legal problems regarding human rights are expected. Students and supervisors determine if there is a possibility to intervene through strategic litigation, we develop a strategy and execute it. We do strategic litigation via training research, social and political advocacy, and judicial actions, although we don’t necessarily use all of these strategies in a case.

Une of the most relevant elements of this process is the legal empowerment work that we undertake through community education. We train communities about their rights, and the extent of available judicial and administrative actions. We give advice and accompany them, always making sure that they take action. In certain cases, we act as attorneys or legal representatives of affected people, but always explaining the steps to follow or the strategies to use, so that communities are informed and conscious of how the process is moving forward.

At first, our main goal was to achieve a judicial action, a court ruling, which in many cases was not implemented and didn’t solve people’s problems. With years, the clinic has evolved to not only thinking about judicial strategies, but also political and social strategies, with the media, with allies. This is, to think about a broader process, where strategies are combined, and not a judicial action. For this, we have worked with students and communities to show that litigation before court benches is not always the best solution. Instead, it is best to take an administrative path, or write a good article for the media that puts pressure on the involved institutions.

In the last 10 years we have tried to move away from such judicialization of community needs and think of other scenarios, in which the community has the tools to directly interact with the relevant political actors. We have also worked with the legislative power, by commenting on draft legislation and bringing a human rights perspective. We believe that this approach allows us to reach more real and faster solutions for the communities. Also, it has a very important educational component with regards to the training of lawyers working with communities, deconstructing the rigid or traditional image of the lawyer and her/his role.

Why do you think that legal empowerment is important to address such issues?

When working with communities we take on a role of connecting agents between the citizen and the state, providing tools for the communities to access justice and materialize their rights. This way, our work always includes educational and awareness raising strategies about rights, available mechanisms to protect them, and the scope of strategic litigation. Our goal is to achieve the legal empowerment of the community. In practice, this translates into the community -if possible- acting as a plaintiff or intervener, and its representatives attending court hearings. This helps to establish a dialogue between institutions, judges and citizens.

Colombia occupies the second position globally in the index of number of lawyers, with 355 lawyers for every 100.000 residents. However, this is not translated into a real access to justice. Because of this, at the GAP we train lawyers with a broader social responsibility, aligned with such causes, to try and reduce the access to justice gap.

Which are the greatest challenges that you are facing and what are you doing to address them?

Judicial backlog is one of our challenges. This has meant that we have had judicial procedures that lasted more than 5 years without solving the communities’ problems. We have implemented complementary strategies, such as going to the media and supervisory bodies to raise the visibility of the cases and look for solutions for those affected.

On the other hand, staff resources and time are limited, and we can’t directly accompany a large number of cases that reach us. To overcome this, we give advice documents to the communities that explain possible legal strategies in a very simple language, so that they can directly litigate their cases. We also do capacity-building sessions to train the communities in legal aspects.

Another challenge has been to step out of legal actions and understand strategic litigation as a comprehensive strategy that doesn’t always mean to get to the judicial power. In a country with an established lawsuit culture, it is difficult to understand and make others understand that there are other ways to try and solve social and coexistence problems.

We have moved forward in this sense, designing political and social strategies, working with the media, and engaging allies, to obtain concrete and faster solutions.

The greatest challenge that we have is on the educational side. For students to understand that in the future their professional practice is compatible with actions in favour of marginalized groups. That they consider it as a proper practice of the legal profession.

How has the selection for the Innovation Lab impacted your work and that of the communities that you work with?

The greatest impact has been to turn the GAP not only into a clinic in which students are passing through, but also into a space where they can make their projects aligned with the GAP come true.

These strategies and spaces are important to materialize everything that we have mentioned about our mission and work. First, because we are always looking to go to the regions and fight against the acute centralization of our country. To reach those regions and work with young activists from the area, which at the same time opens a window for future cases from those regions to reach the clinic. Second, because it matches with the community educational component that we mentioned. Building the capacities of young activists, so that they can take action, claim their rights and make decisions from their territories, as changemakers.

The project for the Innovation Lab, the “Youth Network for Environmental Democracy in Colombia’s Regions” is a Network build for and by young activists, members of ethnic and peasant communities, ready to learn legal tools for the defense of the environment and the public interest, as well as to strengthen their leadership, share their knowledge and experiences, with the purpose of becoming changemakers in their territories.

Which strategies do you use to ensure the long term sustainability of your work?

The GAP is part of the Legal Counseling Office of Universidad del Rosario and is considered an extension activity because of its social impact. Since extension is one of the substantive functions of the University, its existence is privileged and the GAP is supported. In addition, for students that are part of the GAP this is a curricular component of their studies, qualifiable, which guarantees their continuity, compromise and the quality of their contributions.

The technical sustainability of the GAP is ensured by being composed of researchers and professors from the Jurisprudence Faculty, who have permanent contracts with the University and have a supervisory role. The financial sustainability is guaranteed through a fixed budget granted by the Faculty. The sustainability of our work with the communities depends on the establishment of communication bridges based in trust, and the capacity-building of their leaders. A good educational process ensures that leaders will replicate such strategies in their territories. Open communication with the communities helps to maintain relationships across time.

We aim for the “Youth Network for Environmental Democracy in Colombia’s Regions” to be a permanent project and dream that in the future it will have its own resources to help promote environmental democracy and the defense of human rights.

Do you have any recommendations for other Network members?

When working on legal empowerment, always take into account the voice and needs of the communities that you work with. Working with communities means strengthening their skills; us, civil society organizations or related institutions, must not take their role, but provide the tools needed for them to lead their processes. In particular when doing strategic litigation and as a clinic, we always keep in mind not to perform actions with damage, and not to adapt cases to the clinic’s strategies or interests.

See obstacles as opportunities. If it wasn’t because of the online world imposed due to the pandemic, we couldn’t have gotten to work with certain communities or in certain places. Working online has allowed us to expand our work to other communities, and implement a course for participants from different regions in the country with little resources.

Engage young people in your initiatives. Their leadership and innovative ideas, together with the needed tools, can lead to changes in current circumstances. Young people are replicators of knowledge, and can turn themselves into real agents of change within their communities.

You can learn more about the Group of Public Action 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.