Developing capable citizens: the role of public legal education

Published in July 2007, this seminal report by the independent Public Legal Education and Support (PLEAS) Task Force calls for a new approach to public legal education with the clear objective of increasing the capacity of individuals and communities to deal with law related problems.

Read the report: Developing capable citizens: the role of public legal education (172 KB)

The PLEAS Task Force was set up in January 2006 following a consultation on how to develop a national strategy for public legal education. The Task Force was chaired by Professor Dame Hazel Genn and supported by the Department for Constitutional Affairs – now the Ministry of Justice. Members included representatives from government departments, consumer, legal affairs, education and advice organisations. Through a series of meetings, the Task Force analysed current public legal education provision looking at its strengths and the main obstacles to successful growth. This informed recommendations for a development strategy to improve and extend PLE activities.

The report starts from the premise that the management of the complexities of daily life requires an effective legal system and a population capable of making good use of that system. Capable citizens need to be able to understand how the law affects their daily lives and be sufficiently knowledgeable, skilled and confident to take up issues.

The current problem was summerised by Professor Genn in her speech at the launch of the report where she said:

‘The legal system exerts a strong influence on people’s lives, but many find it confusing, alien and intimidating. People often feel powerless, thinking that as an individual they won’t have any chance against their employer, a government department, or a business. This means that every year a huge number of problems go unresolved, or become much more complicated and damaging than necessary. Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable groups in society are the least knowledgeable about solutions and routes to redress.’

The report recommends that effective public legal education would help people avoid problems in the first place, get them to take action early before problems escalate, and provide the knowledge and skills to manage issues better, including knowing when and how to get expert help.

‘Public legal education provides people with awareness, knowledge and understanding of rights and legal issues, together with the confidence and skills they need to deal with disputes and gain access to justice.

‘Equally important, it helps people recognise when they may need support, what sort of advice is available, and how to go about getting it. Public legal education has a further key role in helping citizens to better understand everyday life issues, making better decisions and anticipating and avoiding problems.’

PLEAS Task Force working definition of public legal education

The Task Force report provides many examples of successful public legal education but argues that there are significant obstacles to developing this work. Public legal education currently lacks a coherent identity and is still a marginal activity for most of its providers. Providers act independently with little awareness of what others are doing and there has been very little evaluation or development of agreed good practice.

The report argues that public legal education needs to develop and grow dramatically to overcome these obstacles and to achieve its potential. A strategy for public legal education development will include the creation of a coherent focus and identity for PLE; creation of a practitioner network and an online knowledge bank; development of good practice; evaluation and quality frameworks; PLE pilot projects and research.

The Task force recommends that an independent Public Legal Education Centre be set up as a high level strategic body to implement these proposals.

Published: 24 January 2017

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