PLE is vital for empowering communities, but lawyers can’t do it alone

The first time I presented a discrimination workshop to English Gypsy Women (that is how they described themselves, with firm capital letters), the participants talked over me, which I found somewhat distracting. I was also very pleased. I had been pre-warned by Shirley from the tiny community group One Voice 4 Travellers, this is what would happen during my talk, if the women became actively engaged in what I was saying, so I should take pleasure in it.

It meant the women were seeing parallels with what I was saying and their own lives and bringing out their lived experience. They opened up, telling stories of how they hid their ethnicity from colleagues at work for fear of dismissal and harassment. How companies would not deliver goods to their sites, and shop staff made comments about all Gypsies being thieves.

We looked at practical solutions, actually available to them in Suffolk, a county with few legal services and, at the time, the spectre of employment tribunal fees, or the paperwork needed to get fee remission. I wrote and presented  the workshop in a way which recognised their limited literacy, but was respectful of their skills and culture. Shirley told me that several of the women had reported back to families and neighbours on the sessions.

More recently I partnered with Ace Anglia, a specialist advocacy charity in Suffolk for people with learning disabilities whose staff are a mix of Easyread practitioners and people with lived experience of learning disability. We wanted to use Easyread principles to write and present to a large workshop about discrimination in the provision of goods and services at their regular county-wide meeting for about 65 participants with learning disabilities.

I had read the Equality Act in Easyread, so knew a bit about the concept (here). But in order to get me to understand it, colleagues from Ace extended its principles to every element of the workshop, from the way the booklet is physically read, to the evaluation process, and  interactivity. Max and Karl coached us in layout, ‘scaffolding techniques’, how to make case studies relevant, and how to field questions. It was a wonderful experience and we are collaborating again on an Easyread version of our “3Ds” leaflet on getting disability-related reasonable adjustments in the administration of Universal Credit.

Working with One Voice 4 Travellers and Ace are two examples of our successes in delivering public legal education.

We have also had a few failures. For example, we organised an open day at the Ipswich County Court to meet family judges, and with family law volunteers on hand to give advice and signposting. We did loads of publicity, including radio and posters. We know our family law clinics had long waiting lists. Despite our efforts, hardly anyone turned up.

We tried to generate the audience ourselves and we had not succeeded. What was it that had made the difference?

The successful events had been funded co-productions, with small community groups with close knowledge of the likely participants. Each group knew what would bring in the audience, what would engage them, what was relevant, how to present it, even what we should wear.

So why is public legal education and information (PLEI) such a key part of our work?

Suffolk Law Centre (which formally launches later this month) is the UK’s youngest law centre, but we have a long history. We are founded by a 40 year old race equality charity ISCRE, so we have a long and proud tradition of community engagement and upskilling to get new migrants to be an active and informed part of our localities.

Suffolk is a primarily rural area are with very little free legal provision and little awareness of rights or how to enforce them. It is a conservative, “mustn’t grumble”, sort of place. We combine a disappointingly too-frequent complacency by public bodies about the quality of decision making and meaningful consultation, poor internet and transport links, together with pockets of extreme economic deprivation. This is a bad combination for justice and problem solving. PLEI goes hand in hand with developing self confidence and understanding the benefits effective legal challenges can provide.

With LASPO came the inevitable reduction in accessible legal advice impacting locally in family and housing law. There has been an increase in litigants in person, but also a huge increase in vulnerable people with multiple and often intractable problems which cause knock-on health and debt issues.

As our legal work has increased since 2012, so has our recognition of the need for proactive, targeted and localised PLEI, written, designed and presented by us. An early piece of work was a video The Mask of Discrimination (here), another coproduction with One Voice 4 Travellers.

This led on to local PLEI  being a major part of all our projects. So for our Tackling Discrimination in the East project, funded by Big Lottery Reaching Communities grant, this includes various types of workshops including:

  • hate crime as part of year 9 Personal Health Social Education at local high schools (having scoped out the need and content with local sixth form students);
  • how to avoid discrimination in the right to rent checks, with workshops being given to local letting agents just prior to the  checks coming in;
  • tailored workshops on discrimination to various groups vulnerable to discrimination, hate crime and harassment.

As a result of our experience of success and failures, we now try to build into our funding bid money to pay groups for the co-production. We do this because their time and expertise has a value and is a cost to them (which too many bigger organisations forget). We go to where our audiences are, whether it is a day centre, village hall or English class.

We ask them what will make the participants actually turn up and listen to us; whether it is free pizza for young people or shopping vouchers for the Gypsy women  (as that is the encouragement for their husbands to do the babysitting). The workshops we write are shaped around the issues their members face, with examples that are tailored and relevant, often using local anonymised stories and locations to add familiarity. If the participants identify individual issues, we build in follow up appointments, so that where possible we can take action. Just telling people to go to a local advice agency is not enough if there is no culture of seeking help. So relationships have to be built to get the participants’ trust. We involve the groups in evaluation and work out what to do next.

So my advice in developing PLEI is;

  • Find out from the communities what problems they are experiencing and who are they turning to for help.
  • If your funding applications include PLEI, then identify a pot for paying the other groups as co-producers to get you an audience and be part of the writing presenting and evaluation. If they are so small, they don’t have a group then think of other inducements to tie them into participating, like small value vouchers or a nice lunch.
  • If you want any help from small community groups, even just promoting your event, pay them for their time. Don’t expect them to do it for free.
  • If offering next step solutions  like consulting an advice agency or lawyer, find out what is actually locally available and accessible.

Don’t assume literacy, cultural understanding, confidence or even interest in the subject. The people in most need of the PLEI are often those least able to access it, so it is our job to bring it, in every sense, to them.


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