Just in case, just might work
Public legal education isn't just for ordinary people, it could be good for law firms too
If the last Cameron government was marred by drastic cuts to legal aid with no plan to provide alternative access to justice, Theresa May’s could turn out to be the one that comes up with the outline of a solution.
There are questions still. About how the £1bn ear-marked for improvements to the courts service will actually be used. A large chunk of it will go towards the online court project. And court closures are continuing apace. But the solicitor general’s public legal education initiative (PLE) could be a turning point in the debate about access to justice. What’s more, lawyers could benefit too.
A month ago, Robert Buckland QC MP set up a new PLE panel. Compared with the online court project, it’s a paltry initiative. In austerity Britain, the panel has no budget and it won’t be distributing any cash. Instead, it will bring together various PLE organisations which, Buckland told Solicitors Journal, had not got together until now, and it will help coordinate action where an unmet need has been identified. That doesn’t sound overly ambitious, but he has a point. Why start from scratch when some organisations such as the Citizens Advice, Law For Life, and the Legal Education Foundation are already doing some good work in their respective areas. It makes sense to consolidate their effort.
Last week, Buckland kicked off a campaign to raise awareness of the initiative. In a speech at the attorney general for Northern Ireland’s Constitutional Law Summer School, he distinguished between two types of PLE. ‘Just in time’ PLE refers to helping people at the point where they face a legal issue. Then there is ‘just in case’ PLE. This is more interesting. The intention is to educate ordinary people about how the law works, so they are aware of their rights – and responsibilities – and know what to do should they need to turn to the law.
We’ve tended to regard access to justice as involving access to a lawyer and to the courts. In the current context of depleted legal aid and funding cuts, this is no longer realistic. Even senior judges are calling for a more pragmatic approach. Lord Neuberger, for instance, has long been in favour of what he calls “quick and dirty justice”. On the eve of his last day as president of the Supreme Court, he gave Solicitors Journal an extensive interview where he also said the online court project should be supported as “an imaginative way of providing access to justice”.
There are market-driven initiatives too. The success of DIY solutions developed by various tech providers is predicated on some level of legal awareness. Services such as CoLin, a digital assistant for housing claims whose developers won the online hackathon a few weeks ago, is an example of how such solutions could best work. The more services of this kind emerge, the more widely will general legal awareness spread.
What’s in it for law firms? Programmes such as that facilitated by the PLE panel should help make legal awareness the norm. So will the general availability of services such as CoLin. Without turning into legal experts, ordinary citizens will gradually develop a level of legal fluency. Ultimately, individuals properly educated about their rights ought to be better clients should their problem require the involvement of a lawyer. Dealing with prospective clients who do not need an explainer in what the law can achieve in their particular circumstances could make a significant difference in terms of efficiencies. I have mentioned Siaro before; the platform developed by Brighton-based Family Law Partners seeks to address this kind of issue by cutting back on the free, pre-instruction conversations and start billing as soon as possible.
A new generation of clients educated about the legal process could deliver better outcomes for all concerned. It may not be the kind of access to justice we’ve been used to, and it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for legal advice or legal aid, but it could be lot more useful in practice.
Jean-Yves Gilg, editor-in-chief