For inclusive justice

”Legal empowerment” is about reversing that trend: about giving people the power to understand and use the law.


By Amir Hussain

Justice is not only about having an elaborate book of the law to define the individual and collective obligations, duties and rights as citizens of a state. Justice is more about the institutional mechanisms to enable the poor and marginalized to participate in the legal decision making and having access to equitable and affordable services of a free and fair trial. In reality, political empowerment is the first vital step towards enabling the citizens to realize their full potential as participants of governance.

Justice is not about delivering services in accordance with some predefined legal framework, it is about participating to influence the process of legislation. Hence it is about politico-legal empowerment to participate in formulating policy to ensure access to justice and establishing the rule of law.

In conventional legal frameworks, laws and their interpretations are restricted to courtrooms in that the authorities enjoy unrestrained discretionary powers to determine the veracity of a legal matter. The disconnectedness of legal system from political empowerment is the key challenge for the modern democracies to strike a balance between the essence of citizens’ participation and discreation of a law authority.

The path to attaining the goal of politico-legal empowerment is a long-term process of civic engagement and socio-political mobilization. It necessitates the creation of institutional mechanisms that are founded on the principles of inclusiveness, participation, transparency, accountability and sustainability. These principles are the universal values to bring about effective socioeconomic transformation to empower the poor and marginalized segments of society. The value-led institutional mechanism gives voice and political wherewithal to the poor and the most disadvantaged like the women and children to assert their rights and influence the decisions in dispensing the justice.

One of the key dimensions of legal empowerment is access to the justice and rule of law on equal terms. This may include but not limited to influencing the policy-making through grassroots’ social movements. In the context of patriarchal and tribal societies like Pakistan, the poor may not be able to access the justice system due to the absence of a documented identity or of knowledge about the system, illiteracy, or lack of legal services available to them. Laws that affect the poor are often ambiguous, contradictory, outdated or discriminatory in their impact. Having formally documented and legitimate legal identity and the existence of representative institutional platforms for implementing the rights are key to providing access to justice for the poor.

According to the estimates of the United Nations Commission on Legal Empowerment, “there are 4 billion people in the world who live outside the protection of the law mostly because of poverty and stigma. For these people, the law is an abstraction, or a threat, but not something they can use to exercise their basic rights. “Legal empowerment” is about reversing that trend: about giving people the power to understand and use the law. Legal empowerment is the process through which the poor become protected and are enabled to use the law to advance their rights and their interests in relation to the state and the market. Legal empowerment is about strengthening the capacity of all people to exercise their rights, either as individuals or as members of a community. It’s about grassroots justice—about ensuring that law is not confined to books or courtrooms, but rather is available and meaningful to ordinary people. “

The World Justice Project has analyzed 113 countries and found that Pakistan ranks 97th on account of the absence of corruption; 79th in terms of Open Government (whether basic laws and information in legal rights are publicized, and assesses the quality of information published by the government.

It also measures whether requests for information held by a government agency are properly granted); 113th out of 113 countries on account of order and security (it measures various threats to order and security including conventional crime, political violence, and violence as a means to redress personal grievances); 101st for protection of fundamental rights of the citizens; 106th on provision of civil justice and 81st for provision of criminal justice.

Pakistan ranks among the country with the lowest performance in dispensing justice and protecting the legal and human rights of its citizens. There is a lack of an institutional mechanism to enable the poor and marginalized to participate in the process of defining equitable and affordable justice to all. More importantly, the justice system in Pakistan is marred by structural and policy barriers in instituting an inclusive legal system. The institutional mechanism of justice and legal processes are predicated on a colonial structure and outdated hence they do not cater to the needs of the 21st century. The legal system grants unprecedented powers to the authorities and there is a huge gap between the emerging legal needs and the functional justice. While there seems to be a palpable sense of urgency to introduce institutional reforms and devolution of institutions dispensing justice, the government must also support the small initiatives underway to bridge the gap between the justice system and the poor.

For instance, Rural Support Program Network (RSPN) through National Rural Support Program (NRSP) has been implementing an impressive legal empowerment project for the poor communities in South Punjab. This legal empowerment project is designed to facilitate the access of the poor to the justice system as well as educating them about their legal rights an entitlements. NRSP has trained paralegals from among the local communities who are solely responsible to facilitate the rural poor, the women and children to access the appropriate platforms and institutions to protect their legal rights.

Paralegals bridge the gap between the community and the justice system. They play a very important role in bridging the gap between the formal and usually distant justice delivery system and the communities that are supposed to benefit from it. In a nutshell, they ‘informalize’ the formal system for the benefit of communities they represent.

In light of the aforementioned description of legal empowerment and rule of law, RSPN initiated a Legal Empowerment Project in two districts of southern Punjab in 2016. The project reached out to the local communities and the poor and vulnerable through RSPs’ district teams, local support organizations and community-based paralegals.

RSPN is funded by Foundations to Promote Open Society (FPOS) and sub-contracted the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) to work in two districts of southern Punjab, i.e. Bahawalpur and Rajanpur. Eight union councils were targeted and community members were trained as paralegals in various dimensions of legal empowerment. Paralegals, through awareness-raising and reaching out to people in distress and providing them relief spread a general consciousness of rights and responsibilities. The realization of having rights and the support of paralegals rooted in local organizations/institutions to acquire those rights helps vulnerable groups to remain conscious of a possible violation of their rights. They become more cognizant of the fact that not only do they have rights, but they can also avail those rights. Zunira of Bahawalpur District, speaks the gist of this legal empowerment initiative when she says, “I feel empowered now because I know my rights and I know the process to safeguard them.

In our much avowed Naya Pakistan, can government invest to scale up these important initiatives for real change or will they be put to oblivion as the previous governments did.  For a real change to take place, this would a good beginning.

Amir Hussain is a senior development professional and one of the leading columnists of English language newspapers in Pakistan.