Legal Empowerment


Person thinking

With a rising tide of authoritarianism, and more than 4 billion people understood to be living outside the protection of the law, grassroots movements for justice are more important than ever. Legal empowerment, a growing field of human rights practice, scholarship, and education, empowers affected communities to use the law to find solutions to their justice problems. Legal empowerment takes many forms, from community paralegal programs, to mediation and dispute resolution initiatives, public-financed legal aid services, and law and organizing strategies that marry impact litigation with broad mobilization efforts. Lawyers and the legal profession are essential stakeholders in the development and practice of legal empowerment. Lawyers possess the legal knowledge and skills necessary to demystify the law and translate it into a language that is accessible and usable for everyday people. Their legal empowerment work can range from development and design of legal literacy and community monitoring programs, to providing strategic advice on fact-finding reports and petitions drafted by paralegals, to filing cases when necessary in the national and international courts – at times based on data and information collected by the communities themselves. A central tenet of the work is the shifting of power relations, with lawyers and communities working together to expand access to justice, keeping the community in the lead in defining the justice they seek.

The Bernstein Institute strives to be an academic leader in evidence-based research, education, and advocacy on legal empowerment strategies to address human rights violations. Building off the expertise of the Institute’s staff and working alongside leaders in the legal empowerment field such as Namati and the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Institute is pursuing a range of education, advocacy, and research initiatives including:


  • 2018's conference, Reimagining Justice: Relizing Human Rights through Legal Empowermentwhich brought together leading human rights activists, lawyers, and scholars from over 25 countries, including Bangladesh, China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States to assess the state of the legal empowerment field, identify key research and methodological opportunities, and build a stronger global movement for grassroots justice.  Speakers shared strategies on using legal empowerment to address some of the most urgent issues of our time - from climate change to the refugee crisis, immigration, mass incarceration, and attacks on women and LGBTQI communities.
  • A one-day workshop, in partnership with Namati, hosting 30 legal empowerment practitioners and academics to develop a collective learning agenda for the field. While there are a number of studies documenting the impact of legal empowerment efforts, important gaps remain. More investigation is needed to build a broader evidence base and identify best practices emerging from experimentation across the field. The workshop was the first step in a building a community of researchers and grassroots practitioners committed to generating learning that extends beyond any individual country or program. During interactive group sessions, participants shared key learning priorities and the need for increased evidence-building around effective strategies for legal empowerment. A foundation for ongoing collaboration was built and the Institute looks forward to utilizing its convening power to support joint research and shared learning in the coming months and years.
  • Co-convening the Legal Empowerment Leadership Course, a five day program dedicated to nurturing knowledge, methodology and empirical research on legal empowerment with practitioners and academics from all over the globe.  A faculty of respected practitioners and academics lead course participants in an in-depth exploration of key themes, including the history of the global movement for legal empowerment, the intersection of legal empowerment and community organizing, and the role of grassroots legal advocates in realizing systemic change or ensuring effective service delivery. The course is a collaboration between the CEU’s School of Public Policy (SPP), Open Society Justice Initiative, Namati, and the Bernstein Institute.
  • Investing in the next generation of human rights lawyers through the placement of a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow at a legal empowerment organization.
  • Educational programs for the Law School and broader community on the importance of community-driven justice strategies to advance human rights.


  • A Participatory Evaluation Project in partnership with New Sanctuary Coalition to evaluate their legal empowerment initiatives. New Sanctuary Coalition is an immigrant-led organization that supports families through the immigration process by empowering immigrants about their rights, coordinating a network of volunteers who accompany immigrants to court, providing intake support at a weekly pro-se clinic, and offering emotional and  logistical support. The project, in collaboration with NYU Law's Global Justice Clinic and funded by the UNHCR, aims to evaluate the efficacy of New Sanctuary Coalition's work, with a goal of producing literature highlighting the impact of legal empowerment methods used by the organization to address justice barriers within the U.S. immigration system.
  • A Legal Empowerment Documentation Project born out of our post-conference UNHCR roundtable, which brought together community based organizations and agencies from around the country who engage in innovative legal empowerment methods within the asylum context. The year long-project, in collaboration with NYU Law's Global Justice Clinic and funded by the UNHCR, will document these important models and facilitate networking and sharing of best practices.  The project will result in an accessible, interactive website that houses information on the respective models, narrative testimonials from affected communities, resources, and a timeline of key immigration policies and laws with a focus on the human rights violations.