Public legal education: a quiet revolution in the making


The deprivations that persons living in poverty encounter throughout their lives — lack of access to quality education, reduced access to information, limited political voice and social capital — translate into lower levels of legal literacy and awareness of their rights, creating social obstacles to seeking redress.
UN Secretary General intro to note to the UN General Assembly 67th session

james-sandbachPublic Legal Education (PLE) has long struggled to get on to the policy agenda and into debates about the legal system and the future of legal services. It looked in 2007 as if all this would change when the Ministry of Justice supported a taskforce to address the issues of how legal literacy could be improved and how public legal education, information and self-help advice could be better co-ordinated and delivered in a national strategy. However, come 2010, funding for limited PLE initiatives was cut back, and once again PLE was the Cinderella of legal services policy. This is in marked contrast to other comparable jurisdictions where you can find PLE movements deeply embedded in legal culture and public engagement – the clearest example being Canada where most states have dedicated public agencies leading the charge to get information and educational resources out into communities.

Rather than breaking through via a grand strategy, there are some signs that PLE is now becoming a more mainstreamed concern through smaller discrete initiatives. Consider what the following have in common:

  • The U R Boss campaign run by the Howard League as a participatory programme of work aimed at improving processes and outcomes for young people in the criminal justice system.
  • The growth of clinical modules for students undertaking LLB, LLM and professional law courses, featuring partnerships with community organisations, and the growth of Streetlaw programmes
  • Litigant in Persons support (LIPs) strategy collaboration between the Personal Support Unit, Royal Courts of Justice Advice, LawWorks, Law for Life, the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the Access to Justice Foundation, and the judiciary, part funded by the Ministry of Justice, which works to improve support and ensure that self-represented litigants have a better journey through the court system.
  • Actions taken by legal services regulators (albeit often under pressure from the Legal Services Board, Legal Services Consumer Panel and the Competition and Markets Authority) to ensure consumers have greater access to information and transparency about private providers and can access price comparisons.
  • Law for Life’s Advicenow Mandatory Reconsideration Request Letter Tool, which makes it easier for anyone to ask the Department for Work and Pensions to look again at decisions about Personal Independence Payment (PiP) claims.
  • The Citizenship Foundation’s new SmartLaw App, an innovative free app that brings the law to life for 14–18 year olds.
  • The recommendations of the ‘Briggs Review‘ about assisted digital and PLE, in the context of developing an online court and online legal procedures.
  • Guidance produced by the Law Society for solicitors on how to help the public understand and protect their rights.
  • The mandatory inclusion of citizenship in the national curriculum for citizenship – at Key Stages three and four (ages 11 to 16).

More support for PLE has also been forthcoming through the new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Public Legal Education. Founded earlier this year it works to increase politicians’ awareness of the issues of legal exclusion, promote the best practices in PLE demonstrated in the above initiatives for example, and to bring the key organisations together. Meetings to date have tackled the Briggs Review about information capabilities in the proposed online court, consumer knowledge about how to access legal insurance products, as well as substantive areas of law where transactional knowledge is needed, such as tenancy rights. The group also held fringe meeting earlier this autumn at the Conservative Party Conference on the theme of ‘Your Legal Health’.

The APPG’s most recent meeting was held jointly with the Civil Justice Council in the House of Lords to tap into the research insights of UCL Professors Hazel Genn and Pascoe Pleasence, the UK’s two most cutting-edge specialist scholars on issues of public interaction with the civil law. Their presentations looked at how unbundling of legal literacy data facilitates insight into the three related concepts of legal knowledge, legal confidence and legal capability, and enables some conclusions to be drawn about how and where PLE is best targeted – such as in health and family settings.

As you might expect, the debate about ‘information frontiers’ tends to focus on the huge innovations in digital technologies and communication. Anyone even vaguely familiar with Professor Richard Susskind’s iconoclastic ‘end of lawyers’ chant can probably appreciate that there’s massive potential to do stuff that’s really interesting and revolutionary with the law online and through digital software, from Wikipedia and Facebook, through to artificial intelligence (AI) and automated legal document assembly systems. However, there’s also research suggesting that the internet’s utility in this respect as a public legal information channel continues to be constrained by the quality of information provided and the public’s capacity to use it and apply it in a meaningful way. As the frontiers of inclusion change, so do the frontiers of exclusion.

So in this respect, the quiet advance of public legal education is probably just what is needed so that different models can be road-tested and tailored to how we learn and interact in today’s complex society. PLE also needs to learn from other sectors, for example what’s been achieved in the field of financial literacy and capability, following a strong lead from financial regulators and self styled consumer champions like the ever-trusted Martin Lewis. But while we are still in the foothills of PLE and even understanding of what makes “legal capability”, there do appear to be encouraging signs of greater willingness by the legal professions, educators and politicians to embrace the concept and support its delivery.

One final thought:’Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished’ (Jeremy Bentham).











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