They’re lawyers, get them out of here

If young people are to understand their rights and obtain access to justice, we need to keep the legal profession at arm’s length, says Youth Access head of policy and development James Kenrick

‘Lawyers are the last people who should be delivering public legal education to young people.’

This was a common view among the young people and professionals consulted during the development of Make Our Rights Reality (MORR), a major initiative launched today by Youth Access aimed at empowering young people to use their rights to address social injustice.

Youth Access has long argued that gaining knowledge of rights and responsibilities at an early age is essential if young people are to grow into informed and responsible citizens capable of dealing independently with life’s problems, exercising their rights and playing a positive and active role in society. Evidence shows that the greatest gap between legal need and provision exists for disadvantaged young adults at the point at which they are gaining their independence from parents and carers, but have yet to gain critical experience of how ‘the system’ works. There is, therefore, a particular need to develop public legal education (PLE) approaches which target 15-25 year olds outside formal educational settings.

But those we consulted felt that lawyers lacked the skills needed to engage with disadvantaged young people and would get too caught up in technical detail to retain their audience.

They also felt that PLE was about far more than the law. While improving access to justice should be a paramount objective of PLE, it should have a much broader aim: to develop young people’s resilience by taking an early intervention and prevention approach to problem-solving; to improve young people’s health, wellbeing and employability; to protect young people from potential harm; and to develop young people’s ability to participate fully in society and democracy as active, independent citizens. And, ultimately, it should aim to give young people a voice – not only to challenge individual injustices, but to speak up on behalf of young people everywhere.

Developing an effective approach to PLE with young people
If it was to do all of these things and, crucially, build life-long legal capability, then our PLE programme couldn’t just be about lawyers imparting detailed technical knowledge. It would need to enable young people to acquire the skills, attitudes and confidence required to deal with any legal problem they might encounter in the course of their lives. And, because young people learn when they are engaged, any training would need to be experiential, relevant to young people’s lives, creative, interactive, challenging and – above all – fun. Now, I’ve had some rollicking good times with lawyers over the years, so would be loath to call them dull, but, with an emphasis on a developmental process rather than technical knowledge, it was commonly agreed that our primary need was for youth work skills.

It was also recognised that, regardless of how good our PLE training programme was, it would be unlikely to magically result in young people becoming fully legally capable without giving them an opportunity to embed and deepen their learning by putting the skills and knowledge they had acquired into practice. Young people told us they wanted to participate in youth-led social action projects that applied their learning for the benefit of the wider community. Participants in MORR will therefore get the opportunity to shape and deliver social policy projects, peer education initiatives and local campaigns on rights-related issues they feel passionate about.

Finally, young people wanted the opportunity to take part in national campaigns that furthered the cause of young people’s rights. Based on our strongly held belief that youth voices can be a powerful tool for social change, MORR will establish a national campaign network of young people, with the longer-term ambition of initiating a wider youth rights movement in the UK. We hope the project may also influence the wider legal advice sector to recognise the benefits of amplifying the voices of young people to challenge injustice.

We will have to wait for the results of the programme’s evaluation to know whether our approach is effective and, in truth, we recognise that we need a combination of legal, youth work and campaigning expertise to deliver such an ambitious programme of work. With staunch backing from The Legal Education Foundation and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, who share our vision and between them are investing nearly £1.2m in MORR over three years, Youth Access has brought together a strong partnership of award-winning youth advice services who will soon start testing the programme with young people through three sub-regional delivery ‘hubs’:

Of course, lawyers do still have a vital role to play and we are very keen to utilise their skills and expertise to enhance the MORR project.

The following are just some of the ways lawyers can help:

  • sharing knowledge-based training materials you may have already developed and working with us to develop new training modules focussed on emerging issues affecting young people.
  • filling identified gaps in published PLE materials and supporting young people to develop peer education materials.
  • helping us to quality assure the legal content of MORR’s training materials.
  • giving inspirational talks to young people about using the law to change policy.
  • supporting young people’s campaigns with legal advice.
  • working with us to secure funding for further MORR hubs.

This is merely the start of what we hope will be a long-term social movement to connect young people with their rights and responsibilities as a vital part of their active engagement in civic society.

If you are interested in working with us, please contact us here. Follow us on twitter (@MORR_RIGHTS) and you can email (james@youthaccess.org.uk).

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