Paralegals working in advice centres are there to serve the community by giving people easier access to the law and to social services. They will try to help people who have problems by giving them advice, referring them to an organisation that can help them, or taking up the case on their behalf. The role of an advice centre is to help people learn about their rights and in this way give them the confidence to try and sort out their own problems in the future. It does this in the following ways:
- By identifying the social and health services available to the community, referring people to them and supporting them in this process
- By offering a free advice service to people and taking up individual cases
- By running public education programmes for volunteers in the office and educational workshops for community organisations.
- By encouraging people to resolve disputes through methods which do not involve the law courts, such as negotiation and mediation
An advice centre should have strong links with the community which it serves so that it is always aware of the needs of that community. Usually the management committee of the advice centre consists of members elected by the community. An advice centre should also create useful relationships with other services, institutions and organisations – for example, the magistrates office, different welfare services, and so on.
Factors to consider when setting up an advice centre include the following:
- The role and functions of the committee as the ‘manager’ of the centre must be defined.
- Identifying the venue for the centre – the venue should be identified with the following in mind:
- How near and how accessible will the centre be to the community it is aiming to service?
- How near to other resources in the community should the centre be, for example social services, magistrates’ courts, and so on?
- Whether the venue can be located in existing offices of other organisations, the municipality, etc. so that it keeps the running costs low
- Constitution – what will this include
- Budgets for running the centre
- Long-term sustainability of the centre
- Employing people for the centre and how they will be paid
- Training of employees, volunteers and committee members (where appropriate)