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27 September, 2004

Need to know - right to know: a national strategy for public legal education?

The Advice Services Alliance, Citizenship Foundation and the Legal Action Group are calling for a national strategy for public legal education.

In a discussion document launched today, the three organisations claim that a co-ordinated approach to public education on legal issues is urgently needed to increase people’s legal knowledge, give them information about the options for resolving disputes, and help them become more confident and effective citizens.

Feedback on the paper is requested from organisations and individuals with an interest in this issue.

Recent research shows that nothing is done to solve one in five civil law problems; in a third of these cases, no action is taken because the person does not understand their legal rights or know how to go about getting help. The survey estimates that around a million problems go unresolved every year. Thirty per cent of those experiencing civil legal problems attempt to resolve them themselves.

The three organisations believe that equipping people with information about the law is in the public interest: it gives them the knowledge and skills they need to manage their affairs and allows them to avoid unnecessary legal disputes - and to comply with their obligations as citizens. Involvement in public legal education projects can also benefit legal professionals, as it gives them skills in presenting legal information in an accessible manner.

The discussion paper argues public legal education should be seen as a priority across government, as part of an integrated approach to public legal services. For it to have the focus it deserves, there must be a single body with responsibility for championing this issue and promoting its development.

Martin Jones, project director of ASA's Advicenow Project, says:

“We need to see fundamental changes in the way the public learn about their individual rights, to bridge the knowledge gap that is so evident when it comes to basic legal issues. There are far too many cases where basic legal knowledge could prevent heartache. Put simply, we believe prevention is better than cure.

“We welcome feedback from organisations or individuals who have interests in these important issues.”

Nony Ardill, Legal Action Group’s policy director, says:

“We believe that people have the right to know how the law affects their lives, but all too often they are left guessing - or rely on myths and misunderstandings about the law and legal processes. Public legal education is not an alternative to effective legal advice and representation - but it could help people know when they need to seek advice. There is urgent need for a national strategy to take this forward.”

Tony Breslin, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, says:

“Clearly an understanding of the law and legal system underpins the successful functioning of our democracy. Everyone is entitled to have the opportunity to learn about systems and processes that have an impact on their daily lives. For this reason, law is a key part of the new Citizenship curriculum in schools but there is a much wider audience that needs to access their entitlement to Public Legal Education.”

The paper addresses:

- WHY public legal education is so important

- WHAT the functions of legal education and information are, including:

- Providing pre-emptive legal knowledge

- Making the right information available at the right time

- Supporting those who want to solve their own legal problems

- Signposting appropriate legal services to individuals

HOW public legal education should be provided, including:

- The proactive use of the media with informative, accurate legal content

- Legal education as part of citizenship education in schools

- Community legal education projects

- ‘Streetlaw’ projects that use lawyers and law students to deliver legal education to the public.

- Internet resources and legal issue mentoring

- Leaflets and self-help packs, and user-friendly books about common legal problems

- WHAT would be necessary for a national strategy for public legal education, including:

- A single body/organisation to take charge of promoting public legal education on a national level, with sufficient funding and infrastructure

- A clearly defined role of the national body/organisation including the promotion, delivery and evaluation of national strategy

- Acknowledgement across government

- Support of judiciary and legal professional bodies, educational bodies, voluntary organisations and curriculum bodies for schools.

Responses should to this paper should be made to nardill@lag.org.uk by 17th December 2004.

Notes for editors:

Interview opportunities are available with Martin Jones, Nony Ardill and Tony Breslin. To arrange an interview contact Mandy George or Louise Morriss 020 7700 6952

The Advice Services Alliance (ASA) is the umbrella organisation for independent advice services in the UK. Its aims are to:

- champion the development of high quality information, advice and legal services;

- ensure that people are not denied access to such services on account of lack of means, discrimination or other disadvantage;

- encourage co-operation between organisations providing such services;

- provide a forum for the discussion of issues of common interest or concern to advice organisations.

ASA's provides an independent legal information service - www.advicenow.org.uk

- The Legal Action Group (LAG) is an independent national charity committed to improving access to justice, particularly for the vulnerable and socially excluded. Through its publications and training, LAG works with lawyers and advisers to improve standards and knowledge of social welfare and criminal law. It also comments and campaigns extensively on social welfare and criminal law issues, on administration of justice and on the delivery of publicly funded legal services.

The Citizenship Foundation is an independent charity which aims to empower individuals to engage in the wider community through education about the law, democracy and society. Founded in 1989, it focuses particularly on developing young people’s citizenship skills, knowledge and understanding. Its work, across the UK and internationally, includes resources, training, active learning, community projects and research.

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