Lacking 'legal capability'
Public legal education is a key component in developing flexible and cost-effective solutions in which expert legal advice can be secured, explains Lisa Wintersteiger
Last week I gave evidence to Lord Bach's Commission on Access to Justice, focussing specifically on the fundamental role of public legal education (PLE) in access to justice and the rule of law. 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, PLE must be seen as a priority, now more than ever.
Repeated population-wide studies in England and Wales show a substantial legal knowledge deficit. Individuals often fail to recognise the legal dimensions of problems (the figure suggested by our most recent survey is that only around 11 per cent of legal issues are accurately characterised), which 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.
Alongside major gaps in knowledge there are broader competencies that individuals need when faced with legal issues. These areas of knowledge, skills, and confidence form 'legal capability' and are a key indicator for the effective use of legal services. People with low levels of legal capability are more likely not to act when they have a legal problem, and are less likely to sort things out effectively alone.
Research into legal capability is therefore crucial in helping understand how more people can be helped, and how to craft solutions fit for the future. As part of this, at Law for Life we welcome the emphasis on the 'assisted digital' elements of the online court reform, but more needs to be done. The design of the system needs to be cognisant of patterns of legal capability to understand problem characterisations and how they link to effective action, as well as the role of confidence, and the patterns of behaviour we see in the legal needs studies around problem resolution.
In addition, there is a need for innovation in the way in which legal services are offered to the public. We know that traditional models of end-to-end legal services are expensive and out of reach for many, if not most, individuals. Only around 6 per cent 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, but ultimately, disseminating effective information and learning to help individuals understand and navigate their problems is a solution in and of itself. Careful thought is also needed about how information is funded: it must be independent and impartial as citizens need to be able to challenge public bodies and the state.
Projects training community-based intermediaries show every sign of being an effective and scalable mechanism for reaching those groups who are least able to access justice effectively. Linking community teaching with online resources that can be updated and that provide more detailed information about specific rights, duties and processes, is a cost-effective mechanism for reaching more of these vulnerable people. Teaching the granular details of any area of law is largely pointless unless it's for a professional lawyer, since that law will change. But what can be taught highly effectively are concepts and skills that can be read across and that are adaptable to different areas of law.
We look forward to seeing the proposals made in the commission's final report when it is published later in the year, and will continue to take part in the vital conversation around how fair access to justice can be made to work, for all.
Lisa Wintersteiger is CEO of Law for Life: the foundation for public legal education