Empowering the public with legal education
The Conservative MP, Tom Tugendhat, describes how his new All Party Group - Public Legal Education - aims to make the justice system more inclusive by promoting citizens' ‘legal capability.’
Legal issues in British political and social life are often presented quite dryly as the domain of lawyers, experts and judges – a world of technicality and strangely artificial language, rather than fabric of community life. Perhaps this summer might change all that; law-making and the jurisdiction of the courts have been central issues in the EU referendum debate and one of the most positive gains of the Referendum campaign (whichever side of the debate you’re on) is that it is revealing a public appetite for far greater engagement and awareness around legal issues – how do institutions make laws, how do the courts apply them and above all how do they affect me? I hope therefore that members might be interested in becoming involved in a new APPG that I have set up on the subject of Public Legal Education (“PLE”).
Whilst PLE is an old idea, its time may have now come as the law should no longer be seen as the exclusive province of legal professionals. Life in 21st-century Britain is complex and fast-changing; we live longer and more varied lives than before, changing homes, jobs and partners more often than before and our financial circumstances can be unpredictable – all of these have legal impacts especially as we face streams of new legislation that impinge on daily life. PLE can equip people with the knowledge, skills and the confidence needed to successfully resolve common legal problems encountered in day to day life – whether delivered through schools, community based courses, theatre performances, websites, social media, step by step guides, and information and advice charities.
This is not a marginal concern. Research shows just how common legal problems are, and how many are not dealt with; one third of the population experience civil justice problems, but many do nothing about it – often because they think, wrongly, that there is nothing they can do. Almost two-thirds of the UK population are unaware of basic legal rights and concepts or the processes by which they are enforced; that means there are huge gaps in people’s knowledge about how their society works and their role within it. In other areas of life we have seen big policy interventions to address “capability gaps,” taking health for example there is a strong degree of cross-party consensus that the direction of NHS reform should be to empower users to better understand their own health or medical conditions, and address lifestyle issues and health choices, not just give out clinical diagnoses. Likewise there have been huge initiatives in addressing personal financial capability through financial education and awareness campaigns, and similarly with consumer choices.
In the last Parliament there were huge rows about the size and scope of the legal aid budget; I hope that in this Parliament we can move beyond that debate, and look instead at a range of different strategies and approaches which can prevent the crisis escalation of legal problems and improve citizens “legal capability,” enabling them to understand the law and its use in their daily lives so they can plan and take decisions accordingly. This new APPG aims to promote this vision and policies to achieve it.
Tom Tugendhat is the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling