Development of public legal education in Scotland
The final report of the Scottish Civil Justice Advisory Group was published by Consumer Focus Scotland on 18th January 2011. This carefully thought out report,‘Ensuring effective access to appropriate and affordable dispute resolution’ makes some radical recommendations to improve civil justice in Scotland.
At the launch of the report, Lord Coulsfield chairman of the Advisory Group said that the focus should be on creating a civil justice system designed around the people who use it, addressing the various needs that users have at each stage in resolving their disputes, to ensure that these are resolved in the most effective way as early as possible. Some extracts from the report:
'We believe that it is important that individuals are supported to act responsibly by enabling them to find out about their rights and responsibilities before taking actions that have legal consequences. Assisting people to make informed decisions is a key means of attempting to minimise the numbers of disputes arising. It is therefore essential that sufficient and appropriate information be provided to help individuals to take appropriate steps to avoid disputes or resolve them as early as possible'.
'There is a need to ensure people have sufficient baseline knowledge to be able to identify the legal aspects of decisions they make, ensure they are able to access appropriate information and support to make informed decisions about actions that have legal consequences, and be able to identify sources of help and resolution if a problem arises'.
'We believe that building individuals’ legal capability, at both foundation and problem levels, is a key means of encouraging early resolution of disputes. At this early point in the user’s journey, there is likely to be a high degree of ‘self-triage,’ with individuals making their own judgments about how to deal with their dispute, be that doing nothing, self-helping or seeking advice. In order to ensure that individuals are able to make informed decisions about how best to deal with their problem, we therefore recommend that there should be more information and support available to help people resolve their disputes as early and appropriately as possible'.
The report supports many of the key propositions put forward by Plenet in their submission to the Group last September as well as many of the proposals suggested by Consumer Focus Scotland in their influential paper published in March 2010. In all, fifteen recommendations were made by the Advisory Group, including:
A system-wide user-focused approach should be taken to future civil justice reforms, looking beyond the courts to the wider civil justice system.
The civil justice system should be designed to permit a ‘triage’ approach to help inform and guide individuals in identifying the most appropriate route to dealing with civil justice problems at each stage of the ‘user’s journey.
The principle of ‘getting it right first time’ should be encouraged wherever possible.
A web-based system should be created, bringing together information on rights, responsibilities, sources of self-help and advice and options for dispute resolution, which would guide people through the dispute resolution process.
The Scottish Government should ensure that its digital strategy includes consideration of the use of IT in delivering justice services.
Funding should be made available to pilot more proactive public legal education initiatives to build legal capability amongst particular population groups.
The report is being submitted to the Scottish Government to support its implementation of Lord Gill's review proposals on civil justice.
The fruition of this important report marks several years dedication to developing civil justice in Scotland.
The initiative began at the end of 2003, when the Nuffield Foundation awarded a grant to the Scottish Consumer Council to support a series of seminars on the future of the civil justice system in Scotland.
The Scottish Consumer Council (one of Consumer Focus Scotland’s predecessor bodies) convened the first Civil Justice Advisory Group in 2004. It was chaired by Lord Coulsfield and during 2004 and 2005 the Advisory Group hosted six seminars. This culminated in the publication of a report in November 2005, ‘Civil justice in Scotland: A case for review?’ The report recommended that several important aspects of the civil justice system should be reviewed. Four of its six recommendations were later incorporated into the Scottish civil courts review.
A debate on civil justice reform then took place in the Scottish Parliament on 20th April 2006 where the Scottish Executive announced that it intended to establish a judicially-led ‘root and branch’ review of the civil courts. In February 2007, the then Minister of Justice, Cathy Jamieson asked Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk to lead a wide ranging review. The review began on 4th April 2007 and in November it published a consultation paper.
The consultation ended on 31st March 2008 and the Scottish civil courts review, report was launched by Lord Gill on 30th September 2009.
Section 48 stated:
‘Public legal education can improve general knowledge of the legal system, raise awareness of how to deal with legal problems and help people find sources of help and advice. It should be promoted as part of any strategy to improve access to justice in Scotland.’
In January 2010, following the publication of the civil courts report Consumer Focus Scotland reconvened the Civil Justice Advisory Group, under the continued chairmanship of Lord Coulsfield. The Group aimed ‘to produce practical solutions to ensure that individual users have real and effective access to appropriate, affordable and fair dispute resolution processes in order to resolve their legal problems’.
This included looking at what range of assistance (excluding advice and funding) is required to ensure and support appropriate and effective access to justice, including public legal education.
In March 2010, Gemma Crompton from Consumer Focus Scotland wrote 'Making civil justice work for consumers: The consumer perspective on making the civil justice system in Scotland fit for the 21st century'. This important paper set out a four-step approach to removing barriers to justice and recommended adopting public legal education strategy as the first step.
Later that year in July, the Civil Justice Advisory Group published their own consultation, ‘Ensuring effective access to appropriate and affordable dispute resolution’.
To support the consultation process, the Group hosted a seminar on 13th September in Edinburgh. Professor Dame Hazel Genn, Dean of Laws and Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at University College London was the keynote speaker.
A record of the seminar, ‘Ensuring effective access to appropriate and affordable dispute resolution’ is here.
View Professor Dame Hazel Genn presentation, ‘Back to Basics in dispute resolution: What people do people want and what should we be offering?’ and Sarah O'Neill, Head of policy at Consumer Focus Scotland's paper, ‘What do users need from the civil justice system?’.
An influential paper by the public legal education network was submitted as part of the consultation in September 2010. The paper was frequently referred to in the second and final report of the Civil Justice Advisory Group published in January 2011.
A Petition by Stewart Mackenzie calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce ‘citizenship’ as a compulsory element of the secondary school curriculum was put down in September 2010. Consumer Focus Scotland gave evidence to the petition on citizenship education in October 2010. More about the Petition
Also see Public legal education in Scotland conference held in March 2009 and the Law Society of Scotland's Manifesto for 2011 on the need to improve public knowledge and understanding of the legal system.
A seminar on developing a strategic approach to building legal capability in Scotland was held on 27th June 2011. Read our report here.