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How paralegals respond to challenges. Experience of two countries

Author: Halyna Kolesnyk, Communication Manager of the Legal Development Network

How to organize a community of paralegals, motivate it to act, and jointly build strategies to respond to challenges? Representatives of organizations that unite paralegals from Ukraine and North Macedonia shared their experience at a meeting in mid-November 2022. 

A panel discussion with elements of the workshop was held for more than 20 participants from organizations of Albania, Kyrgyzstan, North Macedonia, Armenia, South Africa, and Ukraine within the framework of the work of the Regional Partnership for Strengthening Legal Opportunities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Photo: Yevgen Poltenko, member of the coordination team of the Regional Partnership for Strengthening Legal Opportunities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

“Fairness and justice strengthen social ties. Paralegals play a big role in this. Access to justice, and strengthening the legal capacity of people are as important in strengthening a free world, and democracy, as a strong army and powerful weapons. Our weapons are laws and people’s trust. We hope that the experience demonstrated by Ukrainian paralegals during the russian invasion will be useful to everyone,” said Yevgen Poltenko, member of the coordination team of the partnership.

Paralegals (community advisors) in Ukraine

Photo: the number of paralegals (community advisors) in the oblasts of Ukraine before the full-scale invasion of russia on February 24, 2022

In Ukraine, 225 paralegals are united by the Ukrainian Paralegal Association. The organization was formed three years ago and educates paralegals, disseminates knowledge among the community, helps them, and unites them around common values ​​and a mission. In general, before the full-scale invasion of russia on the territory of Ukraine, public advisers worked in 1/7 of the total number of Ukrainian territorial communities (the total number of communities is 1,469). By the end of 2023, the network is planned to be increased by 60-70 public advisers in order to provide more tangible primary legal assistance throughout the territory of Ukraine.

At the beginning of the full-scale russian-Ukrainian war, public advisers were asked for help in finding food, how to leave the temporarily occupied territory, how to restore a school and insert broken windows… There were and still are many such requests. Paralegals are known and trusted. People are sure that they will help. The working conditions and challenges you have to face are emotionally draining, and stressful, and increase anxiety and burnout. To help paralegals survive this traumatic experience from the first day of the war, the Association organized meetings with an existential psychologist, where community counselors discussed their experiences and supported each other.

Photo: Hanna Ilashchuk, head of the Ukrainian Paralegal Association

“We have also started closed online support meetings. Paralegals had the opportunity to discuss in more depth what they face in their communities and where to look for points of support to conduct help themselves and their community, and its residents. This is how a series of workshops with the community on how to survive stress, and trauma, and how to help survive loss was born. After all, we were approached with such requests too,” says Hanna Ilashchuk, head of the Association.

The issue of providing humanitarian aid became a new challenge for paralegals. In the first days of the full-scale war, it did not exist as such. In some areas where hostilities are underway or threatened with occupation, its supply is critical. For example, in Lysychansk in Luhansk oblast, which is constantly under fire and through which the front line runs, a woman paralegal who is also the head of a kindergarten from the first day of the full-scale invasion was in a kindergarten in the basement with the children. 

“She was able to evacuate them under fire. She turned to the hospital because the first wounded began to be brought in, and the local self-government did not have the resources and medicines, and the funds had not yet had the opportunity to change their concept of work. That’s why we got together and looked for resources to help each other. With the help of the financial resources of our partners, we provided emergency aid, which was very important in the first days of the war,” Hanna says.

Together with the Legal Development Network, paralegals had the opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance to the most affected and vulnerable residents of communities from eight regions of Ukraine for five months.

Thanks to cooperation with human rights organizations of Ukraine and state structures, the “Paralegal” application was created, thanks to which the paralegal has access to the knowledge base and can immediately redirect a resident of the community to free legal assistance online. Before that, it was necessary to physically come to the department.

An important part is the legal support column. Responses to questions requested by paralegals are summarized and shared for use through both social media and internal communications.

Photo: summer camp of the Ukrainian Paralegal Association in 2022

“One of our strategic directions is the inclusion of paralegals in the recovery of Ukraine. We are not only talking about infrastructural changes, but also democratic ones, and how local self-government can take part in the recovery. We are creating a training course for paralegals on how to pilot and facilitate these changes in communities. We invite paralegals to develop their own ideas that they see for implementation in their communities. And at the end, the best ideas will receive support and will be implemented. In the future, we would like the results of this training program to be scaled to all communities or public organizations that wish to take part in the reconstruction of Ukraine,” concludes Hanna Ilashchuk.

Paralegals in North Macedonia

Association for legal education and transparency LET Station Prilep has been working for four years in North Macedonia. The team includes both lawyers and paralegals. Paralegals work in communities and are part of them. They offer help when community residents encounter obstacles.

Photo: Vesna Shapkoski, executive director of the Association for legal education and transparency, North Macedonia

“We want people to be able to identify their problems. We provide them with information on how to solve this or that problem and redirect them to the necessary institution,” says Vesna Shapkoski, executive director of the Association.

Paralegals focus on empowering people to help themselves because they solve clients’ problems together with clients. In addition, they create the conditions for lasting change: people become proactive citizens and can demand reaction and response from the government.

In addition, paralegals can signal in time about barriers to access to justice. One of the examples of responding to such obstacles was the establishment of mobile trips to remote settlements of communities in North Macedonia.

“We started working with remote communities and saw that the lack of infrastructure and lack of transport links become an obstacle to access to justice. People are not physically able to get into the office, get a certificate or submit an application. So we created a mobile office and travel to remote areas to provide these services,” says Vesna Shapkoski.

Paralegals are part of the community and work with everyone, including marginalized communities. People trust them and learn first-hand the problems people face and that helps implement systemic change.

“If we involve people in such work, we must be honest with them. We want them to be aware of the challenges and benefits of paralegal work” says Vesna Shapkoski.

Photo: challenges and benefits of paralegal work in North Macedonia

Among the challenges paralegals face are:

financial insecurity. Paralegals are not part of the official legal system and do not receive a salary. They depend on the capacity of NGOs and work with unstable resources.

rejection by the community. Often such a problem arises if you have to work with a marginalized society and even state institutions that may perceive paralegals as enemies. A marginalized community often does not even realize that it is facing problems. It is difficult for her to explain this and mobilize the community to solve the problem.

political circumstances. Prolonging procedures, especially when people expect immediate results. In these cases, people often begin to blame paralegals for not solving the problem. And this can cause emotional stress and burnout.

Among the advantages are:

the work of paralegals is valued and expected. They have a flexible work schedule and their work is dynamic because they constantly meet new people.

paralegals are community leaders and influencers, while also doing work that inspires.

“I personally have been doing this work for many years and am inspired by it. We are on the front lines and constantly fight for justice and fairness,” Vesna Shapkoski notes.

A proactive position and authority do not become a reason to go into politics, as there is a high probability of losing the trust of the community and reducing work efficiency. However, there are examples in the organization when paralegals became advisers in municipalities in small positions and had a certain political influence.

Working with vulnerable communities

The non-governmental organization Kham (Sun) has existed in North Macedonia for over 22 years and has implemented over 80 projects. She works on improving access to educational and medical services, ensuring the rights, in particular, to health, and life for the Roma community.

Photo: Zoran Bikovski, Program Health Coordinator in NGO “KHAM” Delcevo

“To become a paralegal, a person must have at least a secondary education, good communication skills, and community acceptance. We offer training that addresses basic aspects of the right to health, social rights, access to justice, environmental rights, and housing rights. A paralegal should lead by example. His or her work must be accepted by the community. A person becomes a representative of the non-governmental organization Kham, and this is about the status in the Roma community, in particular,” says the organization’s representative Zoran Bikovski, who develops a program and methodology for paralegals with the implementation of legal capacity programs.

In order to empower a community, it is important to understand its needs. Taking this into account, educational materials and posters are being developed, which are placed in public places and settlements of Roma communities.

The organization annually conducts community needs studies, organizes workshops on community issues and office training, engages experts, summarizes good practices, and disseminates them for use.

The practice of involving leaders of Roma communities and state institutions in solving problems is important.

Another part of the work is social accountability. The organization carries out monitoring at the community level and checks which programs are in operation, and what is specified in the law, and conducts budget monitoring. By identifying practices where the legislation is not effective or the program is not working, the organization conducts advocacy campaigns to implement change.

“It is very important that the Roma community first of all sees our work as a human rights social movement. The community is aware that there is a law for them and they can demand respect for their rights. This is the biggest advantage. For more than two years, we have been working within the framework of Ukrainian programs also regarding social accounts, but there are many problems. In our case, we don’t have a war, but we had a Covid-19 crisis. For example, when people waited two years for their operations, but they were not hospitalized. In my city, too, there has been no bus to the capital for over two years, and nothing has changed. Why? Because it’s not that simple. It is very difficult for people to believe that they can change something. Therefore, it is important that when you implement changes, spread it as much as possible,” Zoran emphasized.

Photo: Olga Nastina, Executive Director of the Legal Development Network

Rethinking the existing experience can become part of the development strategy of the paralegal movement to be even more effective and to spread the experience among other countries. As noted by the executive director of the Legal Development Network, Olga Nastina, “paralegals are opinion leaders, authoritative people who are recognized by community residents, thanks to whom there is access to solving legal problems. Where there may be no professional lawyers or attorneys, there is a wide network of paralegals. These are, so to speak, “access points” to the rule of law, solving problems in the most remote regions of Ukraine.”

This is the first panel discussion in a series dedicated to the work of paralegals. The following events will be announced later.

An existential psychologist is a specialist who evaluates, diagnoses, and studies the meaning of human life, the conditions of its acquisition, changes, and loss.

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