60 second interview with Michael Smyth CBE
Michael Smyth CBE is the inaugural chairman of Law for Life. He was a former partner at Clifford Chance and has been a longstanding supporter of public legal education.
What’s your involvement in PLE?
It is a wholly unoriginal thought, but I have for a long time believed that a contented society is more likely to be one in which there is a high level of awareness about law, and the rights and responsibilities that underpin the law. Some years ago, I was appointed to the Ministry of Justice's Public Legal Education Committee, chaired by Lord Bach, which looked at the PLE issue in what I found a rather coherent and effective way. It was in that context that I first met Martin Jones and Lisa Wintersteiger, who were then doing pioneering work with Plenet. When Law for Life was first established, I became its inaugural chairman, a daunting proposition, but one of which I am inordinately proud.
What is your favourite example of PLE?
As the evidence has accumulated, it is now difficult to dissent from the proposition that the more legally aware citizens are, the more their engagement with the law is likely to be positive. The trail-blazers in this area were of course the consumer protection organisations, most notably Which? More recently, the content generated under the Plenet banner has been exemplary.
Why do you think PLE works?
PLE has an immediate appeal in that it speaks to all of us. It is about negotiating life and specifically about negotiating legal process. The world isn't likely to become less complex any time soon and it is vital that all our fellow citizens have every reasonable prospect of acquiring sufficient knowledge to enable them to engage confidently with the legal issues that are a feature of all our lives. PLE works because it is so relevant. Its other appeal is its potential. In modern parlance it is scaleable: a few well-chosen interventions can go a very long way.
What is the biggest challenge PLE faces?
No prizes for asserting that Law for Life has been launched at an inauspicious time, with public spending constraints likely to be a feature of all our lives for many years to come. In a perfectly-ordered world, PLE programmes would be driven by governments who acknowledged that raising legal consciousness of citizens is likely in the long run to benefit the Exchequer by reducing the number of families leading chaotic lives and reducing financial and other burdens placed on other parts of the welfare system. Alas, we live in times that are far from perfect and as a small, start-up charity we need to pitch for support from the usual pool of sponsors and supporters who face increasingly desperate representations from beleaguered front-line advice agencies. The immediate challenge for us is to be self-sustaining in a world where cash is tight.
What is your top tip for achieving successful PLE?
We get it. We understand why this is an idea whose time has surely come. My top tip for guaranteed success is that every PLE supporter commit to meeting one public agency a year to exhort them to devise one PLE programme relevant to that agency's area of operations. The growth curve of PLE should be exponential once we really get started.