Education implications from the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey
This research by the Legal Services Research Centre was published in 2007 as an annex to the PLEAS Task Force Report, 'Developing capable citizens: the role of public legal education'. Using data from their 2004 survey of representative households, the detailed findings make a clear case for the value of public legal education.
Evidence from this important research indicates that there is a strong associate between knowledge of rights and processes and success in dealing with legal problems. It also shows that lack of knowledge and awareness links strongly to negative consequences and that people who lack knowledge are much less likely to achieve their objectives in dealing with a legal problem.
The 2004 English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey found that people who reported a civil justice problem chose very different ways of dealing with them. Significantly over ten percent of people took no action to resolve their problem - a very high proportion of these were people without educational qualifications. There were significant differences in rates of inaction between problem types - the most common reason (22%) being that people thought it would make no difference. This was notable for problems related to employment, discrimination, homelessness, money/debt and mental health. The findings suggested that doing nothing about a problem was most common for problems associated with a substantial imbalance of knowledge, standing and institutional support.
52% of respondents obtained formal advice and 31% handled their problems on their own. The findings show that of the 31%, many were people with higher degrees and high incomes - people who are likely to have the personal capacity and understanding to resolve problems themselves.
People's advice-seeking behaviour was often influenced by previous advice-seeking strategies. The paper suggests that public legal education initiatives also have the potential to break these entrenched behaviour patterns.
Continuous Social Justice Survey
The Legal Services Research Centre also conducts a Continuous English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey (CSJS). The survey started in January 2006 and confirmed the earlier findings regarding vulnerable groups. Additional questions revealed that 62% of respondents did not know at the time of their problem what their legal rights were, and 69% reported that they did not know what formal processes were sometimes used to deal with their sorts of problem.
In terms of meeting their objectives, there were significant differences between those who felt they knew their legal rights at the time of their problem, and those who did not. Those who knew their rights met all of their objectives 59% of the time compared to only 29% for those who did not know their rights.
The socio-demographic results highlight some of the specific population groups who might benefit from education initiatives. At problem level the results also show how it might be of more benefit in relation to certain legal issues.
The paper concludes saying that the findings clearly demonstrate the negative impact of knowledge gaps - increased rates of inaction, more failed attempts to obtain advice and more negative consequences as a result of problems.
The research suggests a number of challenges that need to be addressed. These include the need to define the concept of public legal education. There is also no single indicator of what an adequate level of legal education entails - what might be adequate for one citizen would be inadequate for another.
Legal capability is equally if not more difficult to define as it includes many different legal issues, which are intimately linked to a wide range of social and personal problems.
Personal capacity is identified as the third challenge - self esteem, ability to cope, entrenched avoidance behaviour, life circumstances and support networks are all factors that need to taken into account alongside anxiety about the implications of dealing with a problem.
The paper proposes that dedicated research and evaluation is needed to address these challenges and to inform future developments.
The research was conducted by Alexy Buck, Pascoe Pleasence and Nigel J. Balmer and published in 2007.