Public legal education is fundamental to access to justice – and must be a priority

Public legal education is fundamental to access to justice and the rule of law. Most people don’t understand their rights and struggle to access services, and the majority of people can’t afford to pay for the help of a lawyer. At a time of significantly reduced expenditure for legal aid, combined with fast-paced reforms on the horizon in the form of Brexit and the move to Online Courts – Lisa Wintersteiger argues that now, more than ever, PLE must be seen as a priority

Law for Life was asked to give evidence to Lord Bach’s Commission on Access to Justice. The impact of LASPO 2012 has been undeniably devastating: many people who previously could access advice and representation have been left without help in areas of law associated with poverty and social disadvantage. The cuts have eviscerated swathes of the advice sector, and have had an enormous impact on the informational ecosystem that is available to the public.

But unacceptable levels of unmet need have a much longer pedigree. Repeated surveys over the last 40 years have pointed to the peripheral role of legal services and legal processes in relation to many types of justiciable problems (see Pleasence et al (2013) Paths to Justice: A past, present and future road map. Nuffield. PDF). Lawyer use and use of the formal legal system is incredibly low compared to the prevalence of civil legal problems. In contrast, as a proportion of justice expenditure, investment is still unevenly distributed at the very top, toward courts and legal institutions, and toward crime: that must change.

Research into legal capability is crucial to understanding how more people can be helped, and how to craft solutions fit for the future. Studies show that lack of knowledge about laws and legal systems is pervasive. Individuals often fail to recognise the legal dimensions of problems; almost half of people surveyed describe their problem as ‘bad luck’ (the figure suggested by the most recent survey is that only around 11% of legal issues are accurately characterised). That means people are limited in their actions, choices, and access to appropriate help. They are also hindered from using digital help effectively because they struggle to frame their problems in order to search for what they need, and can’t properly assess the quality of information, or even identify information from the correct jurisdiction.

At Law for Life we welcome the emphasis on the ‘assisted digital’ elements of the proposed Online Court, but more needs to be done. The design of the system needs to be cognisant of how people characterise problems and how that links to effective action, as well as the role of confidence, and the patterns of behaviour around problem resolution. The reforms also raise pressing questions about the role of public legal education and the rule of law. The provision of information to help the public navigate legal issues will include their ability to challenge the State or individual public bodies. There must therefore be a thoughtful engagement with the way in which information and education is funded and delivered in a ‘digital by default’ system. We recommended that the Commission consider the rule of law issues and the need for high-quality, independent and impartial legal information that the public can trust.

As the clock counts down toward Brexit the links between legal need and juridification need to be better understood. Legislative complexity and accelerated legislative activity impacts disproportionately on vulnerable individuals (see Paths to Justice: A past, present and future road map – as above). Those individuals are the least equipped to cope with regulatory demands as they unfold in their lives. Given the continuing and increasing demands on the public to understand and make use of new legislation, the need for a better grasp of the interrelationship between law-making and legal need is a serious challenge.

PLE should drive innovation in the way in which legal services are offered to the public, rather than be seen as an afterthought. Traditional models of end-to-end legal services are expensive and out of reach for many, if not most, individuals. Only around 6% of people on average access a lawyer when a legal problem occurs. Public legal education is a key component in developing flexible and cost-effective solutions in which expert advice can be secured. There is an increasing need to offer more flexible arrangements for fixed-fee parcels of work which are supported by effective information and learning bridges.  More must be done, too, to improve information gaps to help people understand what services exist and how they can use them in a cost-effective and empowered way.

Technology will be a crucial part of that mix to help disseminate high quality and independent legal information and learning to help individuals understand and navigate their legal problems Interactive tools, tailored to simplify complex legal forms and problems, can achieve a great deal. Offline, projects training community-based intermediaries – from tenants associations to social workers – show every sign of being an effective and scalable mechanism for reaching those groups who are least able to access justice effectively.

Law for Life will continue to press for public legal education to be recognised as a vital component of a fair and inclusive system of justice and a healthy democracy. We look forward to seeing the proposals made in the Commission’s final report when it is published later in the year.

Profile photo of Lisa Wintersteiger About Lisa Wintersteiger
Lisa is CEO of Law for Life, the foundation for public legal education

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