If you ask google, Paralegal is not a movement. It is a ‘person trained in subsidiary legal matters but not fully qualified as a lawyer’. But if you ask me, there is a lot more to a paralegal than just the knowledge of legal matters. Paralegals can be a movement and Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is a pioneer in this.
CSJ uses law as a tool to strengthen human rights culture & an all-inclusive pluralist society, free of violence, injustice, discrimination, and stereotyping. All of CSJ’s right based interventions start with setting up a law centre ( Kanooni Margdarshan Kendra) in the target area. Presently, there are eight CSJ Law centres in India and it operates through partner organisations in other parts of the country. Each law centre is manned by manager, lawyers and paralegals. Most of these legal persons belong to the vulnerable communities, which contributes to their commitment towards issues of vulnerable communities.
The paralegals in these centres are people from the community itself. In the initial days, organisation conducts village visits and awareness camps to identify motivated volunteers from the community. These identified volunteers are then trained to conduct field research and basic legal matters. But what ensures a sustainable impact in the community is organising paralegal trainings for these identified volunteers. The trained paralegals are recognised by the District Legal Services Authority (a statutory body for providing free legal services for the citizens).
I would have never imagined that knowledge of law can empower a person but CSJ is full of such success stories. People have climbed up the ladder from being a volunteer to a project lead. A victim of domestic violence became the ‘lady lawyer’ of Bharuch, given to her training as a paralegal. Another paralegal changed the course of CSJ’s work by bringing organisation’s attention towards the rights of fishermen community. Today, CSJ has setup a separate program to fight for coastline issues. They are fighting for amendments in the stringent coastal laws and betterment of the living conditions. Also, I know a paralegal who has escalated from field activism to being a administrator at CSJ’s head office.
Bringing transparency in the judiciary and simplifying it for everyone is also an objective of CSJ. And, paralegal trainings is a great contributor to it. One of the innovative example of this is training prison inmates. The prisoners with life sentence were trained as paralegals to ensure that prisoner’s are aware of their rights and are capable to fight for them.
Every time I explore CSJ’s work, it reinforces this one statement- ‘For a sustainable impact, struggle has to be led from within the community’. My understanding of this has always been that community knows their problems better . So, it is fundamentally wrong if we go and tell them what their developmental needs are. Any substantial change in the society has to come from the society itself.