The profession should play an active role in certifying the quality of public legal information (PLE) so as to help people identify whether they have legal problems, according to the head of an access to justice charity.
The call came as the Solicitor General launched a new panel to drive forward legal education initiatives.
Giving evidence recently to Lord Bach’s commission on access to justice – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s review of the legal aid system – Lisa Wintersteiger, chief executive of Law for Life, warned that public legal education should be given a higher priority.
She told the commission that Brexit and the forthcoming Online Court, combined with reduced spending on legal aid, required a “co-ordinated response” from government, the profession and civil society to help people understand their rights and access services.
“The majority of people can’t afford to pay for a lawyer” but nevertheless needed “to be able to rely on high-quality, impartial and independent sources of legal information and education”.
She added: “Rather than confining legal education to schools, information and learning should be available wherever and whenever it is needed – whether someone is visiting a GP, attending a mother and baby group, or when they are preparing to take on a tenancy.”
Her charity “aims to increase access to justice by providing everyone with an awareness of their legal rights together with the confidence and skills to assert them”. Among other things, it runs the Advicenow legal information website
Speaking to Legal Futures, Ms Wintersteiger said that, for 90% or so of the general population, the problem was not so much digital exclusion as a lack of reliable information with which to characterise the problems they faced as having a legal dimension.
“They might go online looking for help, with assistance, but actually they’ll find themselves looking in all the wrong places, even in the wrong jurisdiction…
“What hasn’t really happened is a solid investment in information technologies that start where people are and where the problems emerge.”
She said the legal profession should take the initiative and help to verify the quality of public legal information: “It is extraordinary to me that we have not even the slightest hint on the question of good practice standards for public information about law.
“Currently it is utterly unregulated and from our point of view we would not see it as an opportunity to heavily regulate the field, but… to see the profession recognise that good information for the public carries a reputational advantage for everybody.”
She continued: “I think that certainly the profession needs to have a stake in those standards and needs to recognise that they are part of the solution.
“That is good for the profession in terms of more able legal consumers and good for the profession in terms of its reputation.”
Ms Wintersteiger highlighted the tool Law for Life had created to assist people with appeals against rejected personal independence payment applications. Some 70,000 people had visited the relevant part of the charity’s website since the tool was launched a year ago.
She said: “The beauty of those kinds of technologies is it doesn’t need to be used by the end users themselves, so we know that nurses and support workers are able to use those tools for their clients to great effect.
“So, small investment in sensible tech – you get some brilliant, scalable, solutions, in our view.”
Law for Life is one of the bodies on the new PLE panel established by the Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC, which held its first meeting last week with the aim of driving forward legal education initiatives.
The panel will promote the importance of teaching people about the law and their basic civil and criminal rights.
Mr Buckland said: “Teaching people about their legal rights and responsibilities, together with helping them gain the confidence and skills to get access to justice can really make a difference to people’s lives – as well as our legal system.”
The panel will meet bi-annually, and is comprised of representative of: Citizenship Foundation, Legal Education Foundation, the Law Society, Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, Magistrates’ Association, Ministry of Justice, Judicial Office, Solicitors Regulation Authority, Citizens Advice, Law for Life, Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, Youth Access and Law Centres Federation.
There was some criticism on social media that there were no representatives of educational institutions like universities.