Legal action can be an effective way to secure justice, but bringing an effective legal case can be difficult. It requires time, resources and creativity. To overcome these difficulties, it is often important to get support.
Legal cases can be expensive. You may need financial support to bring legal action action. Our page “How Can I Finance my Action?” gives you tips on how to get financial support.
For someone who is not trained in the law, bringing a legal case can be confusing. In most cases, you will need legal assistance to do the following:
You can find information about the advantages and disadvantages of taking legal action in “Is Legal Action Right for Me?”. However, whether legal action is right for you will depend on your exact circumstances. It is helpful to get independent advice when making this decision. Advice from someone who can talk you through the options that are available and how they can secure justice in your circumstances.
Rules concerning who has the right to bring legal cases are often complex and will depend on the country you are in, as well as the type of case you are bringing (see “Who Can Take Legal Action?”). Legal assistance is necessary in finding out if you can take legal action.
There are often a range of different people and organisations who you can bring legal action against (see “Who Can I Sue?”). This can create confusion. When deciding who you can bring action against, and who is the best target for your case, getting advice is key.
There are a range of different (sometimes unexpected) places you can bring your complaint, ranging from national courts to international bodies (see “Where Can I Take Legal Action?”). To help you decide where to take your case, it is helpful to get advice from someone with knowledge of the different bodies, the strengths/weaknesses of each, and their suitability for your case.
The other side will usually have lawyers arguing against your case, so it is unwise to represent yourself. You will usually need legal representation to prove your case in court and help you with the following;
While this guide can give you an indication of whether you have a good case and what you need to do to prove it, you will need further assistance to bring an action in court.
You may need support with these practical issues:
When your case involves an issue that affects many people, it can be useful to bring a “class action” (sometimes called a “group action”), i.e. a legal case that is brought on behalf of a group. Bringing a case as a group can be important when facing a powerful opponent.
It can be difficult to bring together and organise a group on your own. Therefore, it can be useful to get support to:
For further information, see «How do I Manage a Group?»
Raising awareness and public support for your legal case (and the issue it concerns) can help ensure there is a fair case, protect you from intimidation, and help you get financial or legal support. Raising awareness could even partly achieve your objectives if the case fails, by creating some accountability about the defendant’s actions.
Raising awareness can be difficult. Try and get support from people who have a wide network and media connections. They can help you:
For more information, see “Campaigning”.
Gathering enough quality evidence to base your case on can be difficult. It is important to get support from people/organisations who know how to gather evidence. Support can include:
For more information, see “How Can I Prove my Case?”
When bringing your legal case, you may face intimidation, threats, violence and other forms of hostility from the opposing party or other people/companies who don’t want you to enforce your rights. If this happens, there are measures you can take and support you can get to help you deal with security issues (see “How Do I Protect my Information?” and “How do I Deal with Security?”
You could get support from the following sources:
Your local community is a good place to start looking for support. Groups in and members of your community will often have direct knowledge of the issue, be affected by the problem, or have a personal connection with your loss. This means they are often the most likely people to give financial, legal, and practical support.
Groups and individuals can include:
A community mobilised around an issue can be a powerful tool to effect change and secure justice.
Example: Fadeyeva v Russia
In Russia, residents of a town affected by the pollution of Russia’s biggest Iron smelting company banded together to secure compensation and stop the pollution. Although failing to get a ruling in Russian courts, they successfully brought their case to the European Court on Human Rights.
Civil society organisations are national groups which represent issues of public interest (e.g. environmental protection or workers’ rights). Civil society organisations can provide useful support when bringing a legal case as they tend to have detailed knowledge of the area they represent, and resources with which they can support your action.
Civil society organisations include:
Example: SERAC Nigeria
A Nigerian civil society organisation called the “Social and Economic Rights Action Center” have successfully supported legal cases defending environmental and human rights in Nigeria. For example, with the support of SERAC, thousands across the Niger Delta succeeded in holding the Nigerian government and big oil companies accountable for their environmental pollution and human rights abuses.
The best organisations to approach will depend on the issue your case concerns. While some civil society organisations will offer general support, others are limited to their area.
Depending on what country you are in, there may be a public body (government run or funded institution) which can offer you support with your legal case. Public bodies can have significant resources and mandates to help enforce the law and protect people’s rights generally, or on a specific issue. This may even be the case if your case is being brought against the government, as some public bodies operate independently of the government in charge.
Examples of public bodies that could help include:
Example: South African Human Rights Commission’s Legal Services Unit
The South African Human Rights Commission’s Legal Services Unit works to enforce human rights provisions in the South African constitution. They have supported several cases, defending education, housing rights and much more.
International NGOs are non-profit organisations which are independent of government, and advocate for causes such as human rights and environmental protection. NGOs are often big organisations with a lot of resources. If your case concerns an issue which they are advocating for, they may want to give you financial, practical, and legal support.
Find out if there are any NGOs who work on issues like yours, and approach them asking for advice and support. Even if they can’t support you directly, they have big networks and may be able to direct you to another organisation which can help.
Examples of NGOs include:
Example: Minority Rights Group
Minority Rights Group, an international NGO fighting discrimination and protecting minorities from human rights abuses, has successfully, supported, fought and won cases on behalf of minority groups across the world. Notably, they recently prevented the removal of 35,000 indigenous people from their land in Kenya.
International organisations are organisations that countries are members of, and have been created to deal with certain (sometimes very broad) issues. Generally, they have a lot of resources and may be able to support your legal case if it is connected to an area of their work.
Every country is a member of the UN, making it the world’s biggest international organisation. The UN deals with issues ranging from peace/security, human rights, environment, public health, and humanitarian aid.
Within the UN there are a range of different bodies dealing with specific areas, including:
Find the body most relevant to your issue and research whether they could support you in some way.
Example: The UNHCR
The UNHCR work extensively around the work supporting asylum seekers in the legal process of obtaining refugee status. This includes advising those in need, providing evidence, and raising awareness about cases.
Beyond the UN, there are a variety of different international organisations which work in specific areas or with specific groups of countries. If your issue is related to the organisation’s area of work or happened in the region they operate in, they may be able to help you.
Often, the most helpful international organisations will be regional organisations. These organisations cover a wide range of areas in their geographic area and often have specific bodies that focus on human rights and environmental issues. These bodies include:
Example: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Legal Assistance Fund
In the OAS system, there is a legal assistance fund to help people without enough finances to bring cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.