Why is Public Legal Education still a Cinderella issue?
The Thoresen review, published by the Treasury in March 2008, sets out a national strategy for the delivery of generic financial advice. The report recommends a multi-channel approach, making the service available via the internet, telephone and face-to-face. The service will be impartial, on the user's side, available to all, and be preventive rather than just for those in crisis. The report recommends a pathfinder project with a budget of £10 million to £12 million targeting 500,000 to 750,000 people.
While ‘generic financial advice’ is a relatively new idea, preventive medicine and public health campaigns have always been part of the National Health Service. Preventive medicine may struggle to get the recognition is deserves, but is widely accepted as an essential part of the work of an effective health service. Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that the NHS spends 1.8% of its budget on work to help prevent people falling ill. The US, Germany and the Netherlands spend roughly twice that.
Both the financial and health sectors recognise the need to reach out to people to help them avoid problems and to equip them to mange problems better. They are investing significant sums of money in this work.
In contrast, Public Legal Education is still very much the poor relation. Why is PLE still a Cinderella issue?
Is it the advisers and the lawyers?
One possible explanation is that the people who provide legal and advice services aren’t interested in PLE. There is a view that lawyers and advisers are essentially problem solvers who like working face-to-face with clients, diagnosing problems, identifying remedies, supporting and representing clients. They are less interested in the proactive, more strategic approach of PLE which requires different skills and offers less tangible results.
Is anyone expecting legal specialists to abandon their work in favour of PLE? Do we expect brain surgeons to run public health campaigns? Of course not. I believe PLE can sit happily alongside advice and legal representation, with its own set of skills and knowledge – its own expertise.
In fact, we know that many lawyers and advisers do support PLE and there is of course a strong tradition of PLE work in advice and legal services - particularly in the independent sector.
Is it the users?
Cynics are sometimes heard to say that ‘legal’ education is futile - no matter what we do people will still get into terrible trouble. This view is understandable from those who deal, day in and day out, with the most intractable problems of the most vulnerable people.
But it is a distorted view! PLE projects show that many people can and do deal more effectively with their problems if they get timely information, training, support, and help - especially at an early stage of their problem, when swift action can prevent escalation. And there is now some research evidence that demonstrates the truth of this. And it must surely be true that legal problems are inherently more avoidable than most health problems.
So why do I think we are in this position. Well, first of all, I don’t think PLE has remained marginal because of advisers, lawyers, or service users. No, I think we have to look to the history of advice and compare it with health and even with finance issues to begin to grasp the problem.
The NHS, for example, has been centrally planned from its inception 60 years ago. In contrast, legal services have always been delivered by a multitude of different providers. As a result, legal aid has always been reactive, providing essential help to those in need, rather than offering a proactive and planned response to law related problems. Of course, there will always be a need to provide immediate and expert help to those overwhelmed by legal difficulties. The law is complicated and most people lack the expertise to deal with problems by themselves. But delivering advice and representation to those in need should not eclipse the need for a planned approach to legal services.
The NHS has shown what can be done by public health campaigns. The Thoresen Review shows us how a planned approach could work for financial capability. The challenge for us is to develop a fully rounded legal service with a proper balance between reactive work and the more strategic approach of prevention and the development of legal capability.
Cinderella will go to the ball, but first she needs some shoes.