International report co-authored by Professor Trevor Farrow explores community legal services for better access to justice

Professor Trevor Farrow and cover of international report on community-based justice services

Community legal clinics, paralegal services, social workers and others assisting those who cannot easily access legal help are effective ways of narrowing the gap in accessing justice that’s prevalent across the globe, says Professor Trevor Farrow, co-author of a new international report released today.

The report, Exploring Community-Based Services, Costs and Benefits for People-Centered Justice, is a review of recent studies conducted by researchers in Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Canada to understand how effective grassroots support systems are in alleviating, if not eliminating, barriers to justice.

The research is part of the Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) project, funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The Osgoode-based Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) played a lead role in co-ordinating the project.

According to Farrow, the inaccessibility of legal services is a common issue, be it in Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Canada or the rest of the world. In fact, the United Nations has identified access to justice as a global crisis that – through its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – requires collective efforts and shared solutions, he said.

According to earlier research from the CFCJ, approximately 50 per cent of adult Canadians will experience a legal problem in any given three-year period. “Like the rest of the world, there is an access-to-justice crisis in Canada,” noted Farrow, who also serves as chair of the CFCJ. “Law and legal issues are everywhere, but very few people can afford legal help.”

Grassroots-level support can help change this situation for the better, said CFCJ Senior Research Fellow Ab Currie, who also co-authored the report.“Getting access to trained social workers at drop-in shelters, support workers at community centres, paralegals, religious advisors and many others who work and interact with people where and when they most need help, are primary goals and benefits of community-based justice,” explained Farrow. “The core idea is to find ways to get legal services and law-related help to people in the places that they live and work, and to identify – and ideally avoid – legal problems or to help address them before they get worse.”

“Generally, there’s a benefit to having these services in the community and the recent research indicates that the cost-benefit analysis is positive for these community justice services,” he added. “There are also non-financial benefits of trust, access and awareness when it comes to supporting local help for local communities.”

South African justice researcher Busiwana Winne Martins agreed. “Because support workers are close to the community, they understand their problems and socio-economic conditions,” she said. “They share the same geographic space and culture and can negotiate plural legal systems and determine how to straddle the formal law and traditional African customary law.”

“People who work in the grassroots justice structures, especially community-based paralegals, are able to translate difficult legal and bureaucratic language into frames that local people can understand and help them to resolve their justice issues, added Martins, who works with the Centre for Community Justice & Development in Pietermaritzburg, northwest of Durban.

Farrow agreed that managing problems within a community and with the help of community members is often simpler, quicker and allows for community values and interests to be part of the process. “Community justice initiatives can provide exciting opportunities for innovative and inclusive problem-solving that allows for important justice options and strategies,” he said.

To help solve the access-to-justice crisis, Farrow added, “community-based justice provides significant and exciting opportunities for meaningful assistance – in addition to numerous other options and processes, including strong legal institutions.”

The addition of access to justice to Goal 16 of the United Nations SDGs, which calls on all nations to work toward equal access to justice by 2030, is a significant driver for action, according to the report.

For more York University news highlights, go to News@York.