Information under threat
All of us, at some point in our lives, can expect to face a law-related issue and will need to be able to access accurate, up-to-date information. Whether it’s a shopping issue, a difficulty at work, or a problem with a landlord or bank the first step to dealing with the issue is to find out what rights apply to that situation.
There’s so much mystique and uncertainty around the law that myths and misconceptions abound. So many people believe that they have rights when they don’t, while being unaware of the rights and obligations they actually have. The best advice, if faced with a problem or dilemma, is not to believe everything the man in the pub tells you: go and look it up.
Access to accurate information is an essential part of access to justice. Information may not have the drama of a court case or offer the personal support of a one-to-one with lawyer or adviser, but it does provide that crucial first step towards the knowledge and understanding needed to deal with an issue.
Jonathan Djanogly MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, has recently mentioned the need for a review of information, self help and education. That is very welcome. There is a pressing need for the Ministry of Justice to develop a clear strategy on the provision of information and education to equip people to deal with law-related issues.
Government’s main focus has been on rationalising government information and delivering it through the Directgov website. There’s sense in that, but it has had the unfortunate consequence of the closure of the Community Legal Advice (CLA) website and now threatens Advice Services Alliance’s Advicenow website, which provided much of CLA’s information.
The CLA website provided a single point of access to quality-checked information from all the best sources, including the advice and legal sector, the wide range of independent and specialist agencies and from government. Government isn’t the major provider of information on the law, most information comes from the not-for-profit sector with some of the best information coming from smaller specialist agencies which work closely with their clients and know their needs well.
Directgov has its role to play but it simply doesn’t provide enough on how to deal with a legal problem. Their slogan is ‘less is more’ and the summary information it currently provides is likely to be reduced.
The Advicenow website can fill the gap. It provides a quality-controlled set of links to the best available information on rights and the law, as previously delivered via CLA. No single organisation can meet everyone’s needs, but Advicenow, by harnessing the expertise of a wide variety of organisations, delivers a very comprehensive service. It currently provides access to 1700 pages of information from 250 providers.
Advicenow also provides innovative and very effective guides on key issues. It has pioneered an attractive approach which caters for different learning styles while providing detailed step-by-step guidance. Advicenow’s guides don’t just deal with the law; they cover the processes and procedures people need to understand, describing what to do, and, crucially, how to do it.
The recent Civil Justice Council report on the needs of self-represented litigants has highlighted the increasing need for this type of high quality information. Advicenow has just produced three publications for the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau aimed at would be litigants, which illustrate the strength of this approach. See Royal Courts of Justice - Civil Law (bottom of page).
At a time of economic difficulty when cuts to services will reduce the availability of advice and representation there is an urgent need to harness the preventive approach of public legal information and education.
Information provides the starting point for the learning which equips people to deal with issues and situations. It provides the basis of the knowledge, basic skills and confidence needed to achieve a successful outcome.
Information can help people prepare for difficult situations; it can provide the basis of good decision making that can avoid problems altogether. It can encourage people to take action quickly to prevent problems escalating. And in a crisis it can direct to the best sources of expert advice.
The Advicenow project has achieved a lot in the last ten years. It has set up and sustained a very successful website and developed invaluable expertise that led to the internationally successful Better Information Handbook. Advicenow has also led the campaign for a preventive approach to the law resulting in the Public Legal Education and Support Task Force and the setting up of Law for Life.
It would be a tragedy if the Advicenow website service were to be lost at a time when it is needed most. Government needs a strategy for public legal information and education and Advicenow has a key role to play as part of a successful strategy.
Thanks to Advicenow for the use of cartoon.