What the weirdoes can teach us about citizenship

I wasn’t taught citizenship when I was at school. It was pretty much just reading writing and arithmetic, with a bit of cooking and needlework thrown in to make sure us ladies would be able to ‘keep house’ when we grew up (although how I was supposed to have a career AND make cushions and scones I don’t know). Having said that, I think I largely came out all right and with a broad understanding of my rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

Even while at school I was probably giving an unhealthy amount of attention to trying to change things.  I’ve always believed the best way to challenge the status quo is from within through educating, campaigning and influencing decision makers.  Sometimes it doesn’t work – it looks, for example, as if no amount of cajoling and persuading is going to save much of legal aid.  Sometimes it does – the Legal Services Act wouldn’t have come about without continued pressure from consumer organisations.  And sometimes, the things we want to change are so big it might not be enough.

I can fully understand the anger and frustrations of those involved in the Occupy movement that has sprung up in over 95 cities across 82 countries since July.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to want to see a fairer society with more equal distribution of income and less power for corporations and banks.  Sitting in tents is not my way of signalling discontent or trying to effect change, but it’s valid nonetheless and doubtless those involved would argue my way hasn’t worked.

If nothing else, Occupy has sharpened the debate and made the press and some politicians take notice (although it seems to have had more effect on the Church of England so far than the church of the city).  So I think it’s unfortunate that Occupy London is in danger of being hijacked by some frankly quite weird and maladjusted individuals.  If you’ve managed to avoid the madness of the freemen of the land movement, I am not going to spoil your day by reproducing their nonsense here.  But if you do want to drown in your own incredulity you can read these excellent blogs: The Bizzle and the Human Rights blog,

In a nutshell, these crackpots think they can step outside the system.  They think that by changing your name you suddenly become free from state repression, including being subject to the rule of law and paying debts or taxes, all of which are used by an evil elite to keep the rest of  in our place.  It's possible they aren't trying to change anything, just abnegate any responsibility they have as members of society.  But if they are, they are not going the right way about it:  you can’t change anything from the outside because it’s very easy to ignore people shouting and waving at the window by just drawing the curtains.

More importantly, I wonder how many, if any, of these nutters have ever really thought what would happen if we all just stepped outside the system, if everyone chose not to participate or abide by the accepted mores of society?  I don’t even think they know what they want to replace it with – presumably a world where everyone was for himself and there were no evil corporations or governments trying to weedle your money away from you.

Suffice to say, this is clearly a deluded bunch of people with very little in the way of a thought-through position, other than they don't like playing by the rules.  But it does illustrate how important it is for people to understand that the world doesn’t owe them a living and as well as exercising our rights we also have a duty to make a contribution.  Which brings me back to citizenship classes.

It seems obvious that the very people charged with upholding the rule of law should have some involvement in helping others understand the legal framework of their society, particularly, but not exclusively, children.  Lawyers for Schools (LfS) was created in 1999 as a partnership between the Citizenship Foundation and international law firm Linklaters.  It involved volunteers from the firm working with students from a school in Hackney, East London to help them understand the law, the legal system and how it related to young people.  Twenty law firms and in-house legal teams now work in schools nationwide.

LfS is a great example of public legal education in action.  It empowers pupils, supports teachers in delivering a challenging part of the curriculum, and probably makes the lawyers feel good about themselves.  It targets schools in deprived areas with the greatest need and to that extent is probably motivated by quality and not quantity.  But I am rather disappointed at the small number of schools it covers and, therefore, the small number of children who benefit and the even smaller  number of lawyers engaged in it

I am not about to advocate that hundreds of lawyers march into schools tomorrow and start working with pupils.  Most of them wouldn’t have a clue what to do and would probably be scared of the kids.  Sadly, even if I did suggest that I am not sure how many takers there would be.  My experience of trying to get schemes like this off the ground in a law firm is not a particularly happy one.  It seemed, on the whole, that lawyers preferred to do their own thing and focus on the more traditional type of pro-bono work (funny that).

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  There are a million reasons why lawyers getting more involved in schools is a good idea – staff development, corporate responsibility, morale, networking, recruitment, even CPD points.  There are even more reasons why they should look beyond schools to educating adults:  It is a scandal that two thirds of people are unaware of their legal rights and 70 per cent have no knowledge of basic legal processes.

When people don’t know their rights, they are unlikely to do much about it if those rights are infringed.  Research by the Legal Services Research Centre last year found in the areas of discrimination, police treatment and clinical negligence, 30% of people had done nothing about their problem.  That’s a lot of people with a serious issue that hasn’t attracted any form of compensation or redress, and unsolved problems can ultimately lead to frustration with the system and alienation from the rest of society.

I’m not suggesting that because people don’t know their rights or how to enforce them they will automatically become a weirdo freeman.  But there must be a connection between knowing about the legal framework, becoming a good citizen and challenging and changing society from the inside?  Even if it’s not explicit, the precautionary principle surely dictates lawyers should get out there and make sure we’re not overrun by the crazy people.

Posted in: Rule of Law

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