Domestic workers around the world face a decent work deficit because they are excluded from labour laws, their work is not valued; and the power relationships between domestic workers and their employers are asymmetrical. Domestic workers typically encounter four main challenges: (i) limited or absent legal recognition and protection; (ii) non-compliance with the law on the part of employers; (iii) poor enforcement of the law; (iv) low capacity to organize and unionise. Domestic workers’ organizations may provide legal assistance but generally lack the capacity to respond to domestic workers’ legal needs.
These challenges are both underpinned and compounded by domestic workers’ limited access to justice and legal empowerment. Low legal awareness and literacy, a “culture of servitude”, the fear of losing their employment and, in certain cases, their housing and legal status, and the high costs of legal professionals and court procedures, limit domestic workers’ ability to seek redress against right violations.
Community paralegals –who are members of a community or group trained in the law to assist their fellow community or group members with legal issues– possess a combination of legal skills, contextual knowledge, accessibility and affordability that might prove well suited to support domestic workers to realize their rights.
Community paralegals have peculiar characteristics that set them apart from other legal professionals. Trained in the basics of the law, community paralegals are not lawyers and do not need a law degree. Their mark, rather, lies in their knowledge and understanding of the challenges faced by the group or community they serve, and in their accessibility, both economic and geographic. These characteristics mean that paralegals act as bridges between individuals and groups or communities, on one hand, and the law and legal and judicial institutions on the other, thus fostering access to justice. Using their different skills, they are able to provide a number of services, whether it is legal education and legal empowerment or advice and assistance in redressing disputes, mobilizing communities or holding the powerful accountable.
In particular, paralegals have the following characteristics:
- Embeddedness in the community they serve
- Working together “with” the community to find legal solutions
The International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) expressed interest in using paralegals to meet domestic workers’ legal needs. In response to this, we launched a research project to gauge the feasibility of training community paralegals to support domestic workers’ legal empowerment and access to justice. The research included mapping paralegal organizations and interviews with paralegal program officers to learn about their structure, purpose, functioning, strengths, and challenges; and interviews with IDWF affiliates to learn about domestic workers' legal needs and domestic workers organizations ability to respond to such needs.
A brief analysis of our initial findings is available here. The brief presents the key characteristics and role of community paralegals, the elements of a paralegal program and why we believe they can effectively respond to domestic workers’ legal needs.
We are now planning the next steps with IDWF. We envisage piloting the idea with an IDWF affiliate in some African countries in 2022.