A WHT Pro Bono Project by Laura Aristizábal
In Colombia, more than 11000 lawyers graduate annually from the 137 programs in the Country that are recognized by the Ministry of Education. The rate of lawyers per one hundred thousand inhabitants is 438 in Colombia, whereas it is 72 in France and 23 in Japan. On the other hand, the population does not know its fundamental rights and the existing knowledge is not homogeneous among its different groups. From the general population, 65% expresses knowing their rights, but this decreases drastically as one reaches the population living in extreme poverty (28%). In spite of the initiatives developed in Colombia to empower people in matters of law, there is no continuity nor clear policy. In addition, it could be determined that, of the population in the middle of a conflict, most decide not to do anything and, from those who decide to do something (43%), only 10% come to the attention of the judges, which might be an indicator of access barriers.
Access to justice for poor people is not recognized by the population as a right but as a privilege and it is only guaranteed by the Public Ministry and by the Consultorios Jurídicos (mandatory social work for law students). This leads to the fact that citizens who most need a lawyer, leave their cases in hands of the most inexperienced people.
When I was studying law I decided, taking a first step towards these identified needs, to do legal consulting brigades for people with low income. While working in field, this project enabled me to test and validate the hypothesis I had, that low-income populations are not aware of all their rights.
On these brigades, we went once every 3 months (more formally since June 2015) with two other lawyers, to forgotten and underprivileged neighborhoods and spent whole afternoons with members of the communities in order to help solve their concerns.
As part of my Weidenfeld Hoffmann programme, I continued to develop these legal brigades, where some cases that can be worked online were sent to me on a monthly basis. Since I started my MBA at Oxford, I have personally worked in 21 cases of a pool of more than 135 cases. Topics went from family (32%), criminal (28%) and labor law (19%), to simpler requests such as understanding how to process paperwork in public entities in Colombia (21%).
As a result, from these brigades, first as a group and then as an individual, and since June 2015, we have helped 412 people than under regular conditions would have never reached a lawyer to solve their inquiries or cases, while saving them more than 30.000 USD in legal fees, employing more than 20 graduated lawyers for about 15 dollars per inquiry. Today, we have 412 additional Colombians that understand their rights and are able to get access to justice through the help of a group of young lawyers that are starting their careers as practitioners.
Working on those cases from Oxford has been a rewarding experience where I has been able to also help some of my users with personal budgeting and entrepreneurship online consultations (taking advantage of the skills I’ve acquired during my MBA).
Also, I’ve been able to map the system of access barriers to justice in Colombia (Infographic below) to understand better the environment I’m working on to think about viable solutions to eliminate the barriers in the system and to build sustainable solutions in my country.