Community Legal Empowerment (CLE) is the process of using law to enhance the capacity of vulnerable populations to assert their human, civil and political rights, both as individuals and as members of a society. It covers a wide range of activities that use law to benefit the disadvantaged, as a reaction to perceived limitations in rule of law projects that target the reform of state institutions, and as a rights-oriented strategy for poverty alleviation. It has been widely documented that power inequalities form the structural basis for chronic poverty in many contexts. In response to that, legal empowerment approaches are being increasingly acknowledged as a systemic response to address such power inequalities.
CLE approaches provide guidance and space for individuals and their communities to identify, understand and use legal tools to increase their opportunities and advance and protect their rights. Ninety percent of legal problems are addressed outside the courtroom. This means that individuals can address their legal problems themselves, beyond traditional routes. Through an understanding of how laws impact their lives, they can begin to assert their rights.
When individuals play a direct role in addressing social inequality and human rights violations, the results gained are shaped by those most impacted. When able to understand and use the law and legal tools, individuals can gain greater control of their lives.
CLE programming assists community leaders and their allies to break cycles of repeated abuse; influence and increase accountability of powerful actors; contribute to the development of new policies and laws; and take part in the enforcement of legal protections for refugees.
CLE programming impact laws, policies and policy makers when adopted in conjunction with other legal strategies including legal services, advocacy, and litigation. CLE expands the sharing of legal information beyond the one-on-one legal services structure and helps guide the delivery specific to its intended audience – based on understanding, needs, and other criteria. The messenger and its recipient can be the same person or group of people making the information sharing effective and targeted to their common goals.
Asylum Access’ experience with CLE
The notion of community legal empowerment for Asylum Access came from refugees’ requests to become involved in their own destiny – to protect and fend for themselves and their families in their new context. We realized that refugees never enjoyed the full panoply of rights envisioned under refugee laws. In our nascent stages, we focused on offering refugees legal aid while advocating for improved laws and policies. As lawyers, our ethical limitations limited us to offering only legal advice. But the refugees who came to our offices wanted – needed – more.
We found that as refugees rise from the initial emergency refugee stages, they begin to diagnose their new context and realm of possibilities. And they ultimately seek to independently rebuild their lives and shake off reliance on humanitarian aid. We learned that as a legal organization we could offer refugees a platform to access legal information for their own advocacy, organizing and community building.
Traditionally, CLE programs funded by development and legal organizations sought out community advisors and paralegals to act as interpreters of the law to their own community. Asylum Access has enhanced that model by incorporating trainings to build personal and political leadership and economic growth. Our programs seek to integrate refugees with local, national, and global communities that are already thinking strategically on how to protect the human rights of its people and expand resources for those most in need.