Helping to enhance public understanding of the law will “unlock demand for legal services”, solicitors have been advised as part of a new push to promote public legal education (PLE).
A new guide for law firms on running a PLE campaign came as a high-powered non-partisan group of MPs and peers that includes several former government ministers was formed to promote PLE.
As well as appealing to the lawyers’ self-interest, the guide – published by the Law Society – argued that poor public knowledge about the legal system makes it harder to win backing for legal aid, while it would be easier to protect access to justice from future government funding cuts if law firms run PLE.
It urged law firms large and small to become involved in PLE initiatives. It gave four main reasons: “unlocking demand for legal services”; community engagement, which would help increase public understanding of the contribution of lawyers to communities; promoting the rule of law and access to justice; and recruitment and social mobility – encouraging diversity among those interested in becoming lawyers.
On boosting demand, it said that by helping people “to identify the legal dimensions of everyday situations”, it would encourage them to visit solicitors. “When people are educated about their legal rights and responsibilities they are better equipped to identify when they have a legal problem and to seek professional help and, where appropriate, seek redress.”
PLE could help win public support for “protecting access to justice” in future: “The current low levels of public understanding and appreciation of and for the importance of the legal system have undoubtedly made it harder to galvanise public support for legal aid.”
Law Society president, Jonathan Smithers, said: “’With significant increases in court fees, reductions in eligibility for legal aid and now the likely introduction of online courts, a two-tier justice system is in danger of becoming entrenched as the gap between those who can and cannot afford legal advice widens. In this economic and social climate, [PLE] may be expected to take on new dimensions.”
The All Party Group on PLE was launched in response to a recommendation by the independent Low Commission, which reported in January 2014 and warned that social welfare legal support was close to “crisis” point. Among recommendations, it said PLE should receive higher priority.
The group’s objective is “to educate the public about the legal system, to increase understanding in Parliament of [PLE], to provide a forum for parliamentarians to work with organisations in the field to ensure a supportive policy environment that enables [PLE] to flourish and encourage initiatives which improve legal capability”.
Its chair is Conservative MP and former army officer, Tom Tugendhat, the son of High Court judge Sir Michael Tugendhat. The Low Commission’s chairman, cross-bench peer Lord Colin Low, is a co-vice chair with Labour MP Yvonne Fovargue. Fellow Labour MP and shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter is treasurer, and Conservative MP Alex Chalk is secretary.
A number of ex-ministers are also part of the group. They include former justice ministers, Conservative Jonathan Djanogly and Labour’s Lord Bach, alongside former Tory Attorneys-General Sir Edward Garnier and Dominic Grieve.
Shadow legal and courts minister Christina Rees, and shadow schools minister Nick Dakin, are also members.
The current Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, has offered “support and encouragement”. The Legal Action Group is providing the secretariat and a large number of bodies sit on the group’s advisory board. These include lawyers’ representatives the Law Society, the Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, and numerous charities, including the Citizenship Foundation, AdviceUK, Advice Services Alliance, Law Centres Network and the PLE foundation, Law for Life.