Community Empowerment at the Heart of Socio-Legal Research
UKZN’s Director for Community Justice and Development (the former Centre for Criminal Justice), Dr Winnie Martins, produced a master’s thesis of such high quality it was upgraded to doctoral status.
Martins study titled: “Access to Justice: The Role of Community-Based Paralegals in Community Restorative Justice in Rural KwaZulu-Natal”, is socio-legal research amassed from Martin’s wealth of experience in the field of human rights and community engagement which she has been involved in for two decades.
‘Little is known about the work of community-based paralegals (CBPs) as their work has received scant attention within the literature and insufficient research exists on access to justice work carried out by paralegals. My motivation to pursue this qualification was to bring CBPs’ experiences into the open through knowledge production and dissemination of their work in academic literature. Paralegals are doing amazing work in the rural communities,’ said Martins.
This passion motivated Martins to explore merging law and public administration and her supervisor Dr Fayth Ruffin of the School of Management, Information Technology was willing to help her on that multidisciplinary journey.
Martins met Ruffin when she volunteered at the centre in 2012 - a chance meeting resulting in the idea of Martins doing her Master’s in Public Administration instead of Law. Martins thesis made a significant contribution in the cultivating sparse body of literature on informal justice systems administered by CBPs that do in fact work and yield positive results.
‘A scholar who served as a thesis examiner mentioned that the epistemological basis of the study was set out very comprehensively and persuasively especially the theory of restorative justice, which gives the content of the study. The theme of the study cuts across different academic disciplines,’ said Martins.
‘The fact that my thesis cuts across different academic disciplines and helps advance theory means that findings from my study are useful for theory-building. I managed to stay passionate about my topic as I saw through literature searches that there are so many gaps that need to be attended to and CCJD offers a real-life laboratory to generate knowledge and empower CBPs so they can empower rural communities even more – especially vulnerable populations like women and children,’ she added.
Speaking on the benefits of this learning curve for her career, Martins said being awarded her doctorate had already opened up new opportunities for her and the centre.
‘I am being constantly consulted and Community Justice and Development (CCJD), the organisation I direct, is being consulted to further the work of CBPs beyond the 15 community advice offices that CCJD oversees in KZN. We have been contacted by justice delivery organisations in different South African provinces and I have recently been invited to London to be part of a research meeting and provide input on areas of research regarding CBPs work,’ she said.
‘This is important because CCJD is an NGO, we survive on donor-funding and philanthropy. I expect this qualification will continue to raise the profile of CCJD and be an instrument of CCJD attracting the funding that is used to pay the various CBPs in the rural areas where they deliver legal services for those otherwise unable to access to justice.