DIY-law: the future of access to justice?

In my last post I wrote about how administrative justice was the Cinderella of the justice system. I now think there is probably another candidate. If administrative justice is grown-up Cinderella waiting for the prince, then public legal education is baby Cinderella, who doesn’t even dare dream about him. As with any aspect of the law that isn’t about criminals or lawyers it doesn’t get much attention and even less money. But lack of column inches and scarcity of funds don’t mean something isn’t important.

Public legal education helps people understand their rights,  know how to enforce them and when to get expert help.  It includes citizenship classes in school, a website, a campaign or simply a leaflet.  Whatever the form, the aim is to empower individuals and communitieis and enable them to take more control over their lives and the decisions that affect them.  In short, it's about access to justice.

Until recently I held the common misconception that access to justice means being able to find a lawyer to represent you.  I believed the barriers to accessing the justice system were old-fashioned, expensive and opaque legal services and, as a consequence, I spent a lot of time not being very nice about lawyers and berating them for not treating their customers fairly.  I regarded the Legal Services Act 2007 as a great achievement, which would open up the legal market and make it more easily available for thousands, if not millions, of people.

It probably will, but access to justice isn’t just being able to get advice about your divorce on a Sunday or draft a will remotely over the internet.  The justice system is much wider than just high street solicitors and big, multi-million city firms.  For many people, justice is about getting advice about their housing or debt problem; or challenging an immigration decision or a benefit cut; or getting redress for a NHS mistake.  Often it has nothing to do with lawyers at all.

A bit like public health and prevention is to the health sector, public legal education suffers from holding little interest for policy makers and probably even less for lawyers.  Because it appears dull and offers little in the way of short-term tangible benefits, there is a lack of centralised planning and not much in the way of resources thrown at it.  Which is pretty short-sighted as there is evidence showing people can solve their problems with timely information, training and support, preventing them getting out of control and costing the public purse more down the line.

Plenet (now Law for Life: The Foundation for Public Legal Education) was launched in 2008 to bring together organisations and individuals working in public legal education and promote good practice.  Just as well, as research it published last year found that about two thirds of people are unaware of their legal rights and 70 per cent have no knowledge of basic legal processes.  Not surprisingly, disadvantaged groups, including women and people with mental health problems, long term illness or disability were even less likely to know their rights.

This lack of legal knowledge and capability not only has a serious impact on people’s access to justice, it can cause alienation and prevent participation in civil society.  It stands to reason if you can’t deal with your debt, discrimination or employment problem, or worse, you don’t even realise it’s a problem that can be sorted out, you are not going to feel able to contribute much elsewhere.

Furthermore, economists estimate that over a three to four year period unresolved problems cost the nation £13 billion.  Now I’m not one to rely on what economists tell me, since most of them disagree with each other most of the time and are usually wrong, but there’s got to be something in that, hasn’t there?

For example, the ‘Bars in the Eyes’ project is an interactive teaching project for prisoners informing them of their legal rights and obligations under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.  It tackles the problem of offenders losing their jobs or going back to prison through a lack of knowledge about the Act and what they disclose in job applications. It’s quite clear how this could save money as well as, literally, lives.

These sort of self-help projects differ markedly from the sort of ‘DIY law’ normally talk about, where people are enabled to write their own will or do their own conveyancing (there will surely be a Which? book to tell you how).  All the same, as cuts begin to bite and the scope of legal aid is slashed under the government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill making its way through parliament, more and more people will find they have to solve their own problems.  The earlier they can do this, the easier it will be, which is why awareness raising is just as vital as increasing legal capability.

But are we too far behind in developing and delivering these projects to catch up with the pace and speed of the cuts?  If we aren’t able to help people solve their problems early enough, law centres are closed down and there is no legal aid, then more and more will become litigants in person.  Already there has been a marked increase in the numbers of people representing themselves in court and this is putting the system under strain.

It’s probably fair to say most of these people do not choose to bring their case to court this way.  Many have major health problems, often related to stress, anxiety or depression, and for one-third of them English was not their first language.  All the handholding in the world is unlikely to help many of these people get real justice.

A Civil Justice Council working party is due shortly to make recommendations to the government on access to justice for litigants in person.  It seems to me that at least part of their report should highlight the importance of public legal education and how supporting awareness-raising and self-help projects could help stem the flow of litigants in person.  If policy makers open their eyes they might just realise this shouldn’t be another Cinderella service but rather something of a fairy godmother.

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