Paralegals are an integral part of the legal system, providing invaluable assistance to lawyers and clients alike. Unlike lawyers, who must complete years of formal education and pass the bar exam to practice law, paralegals can become certified in just a few months of study. While they are prohibited from practicing law or offering legal advice, paralegals are often required to communicate directly with clients, lawyers, witnesses, or other professionals related to a case. Paralegals provide a range of services, from advising clients on the legal process and options for seeking resources to helping customers navigate authorities and institutions. They also do much of the important basic work of preparing legal documents, interacting with clients, conducting research and organizing information that will be presented in the courtroom, allowing lawyers to focus more intensively on judging cases and resolving legal issues. The relevance of paralegals to the protection of human rights is also significant.
For example, community legal assistants who have been trained on refugee laws can train the refugee community about their rights, where to access basic services, how to contact UNHCR in a host country, or how to locate missing family members. It is the paralegal's responsibility to use traditional and electronic methods to collect data about a case, research relevant case law, review previous court decisions, and locate the necessary data, legal articles, codes and documents. Community legal assistants are different from conventional paralegals; their primary function is not to help lawyers, but to work directly with the communities they serve. In addition, paralegals trained in women's property and inheritance rights play an important role in empowering communities in relation to their legal rights, defending women victims of property expropriation, and following up on cases of abuse of property rights. The functions of paralegals include raising awareness among community members about their legal rights, making referrals to request services, simplifying legal terms for community members, reporting cases of rights violations to relevant authorities such as local area chiefs, police or village elders, following up on cases and helping to draft simple legal documents. It is essential that we formalize and ensure the coordination of paralegal work so that the government begins to recognize its valuable contribution to the system of administration of justice.
There are a variety of opportunities for paralegals to make a difference in their communities both as volunteers and as contracted activists.