Why do we need public legal education?

Richard Miller
Richard MillerThe Law Society

Our head of justice Richard Miller explains how the rule of law benefits us and that judges are not the enemy of the people, in a blog for Justice Week Monday 24 to Friday 28 February 2020.

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The concept of public legal education has gained an ever higher profile in government and legal circles recently, but what does it actually mean, and why it is it important to lawyers and to the public? Campaigns to educate people about legal issues are a practical and powerful way to increase public understanding. They can show people the contribution that solicitors and the legal profession make.

The law guarantees our freedoms

It is often said that ignorance of the law is no excuse. But it is more significant than that. The law runs through the whole of our society. It is what guarantees our freedoms. It is what distinguishes a society in which rights can be protected and enforced by the weak and the poor, from one in which might is right. It sets the framework for our democracy, and protects us from the risks of extreme authoritarianism. And it is a crucial tool in how people fight for the causes they care about.

Why the case of Shamima Begum matters

In 2019 there was a widespread media outcry when Shamima Begum was granted legal aid to challenge a decision by the Home Secretary to strip her of her citizenship. The Law Society worked hard to explain the importance of ensuring that when politicians make far-reaching decisions about individuals, it is vital that there is a mechanism for such decisions to be reviewed by the Courts, to ensure that they are in accordance with the law.

Freedom from arbitrary decisions made about us by politicians is one of the most fundamental freedoms we have. It is an absolute requirement for a society governed by the rule of law. Some people might think that this doesn't matter if it is only terrorists that this affects. But it isn't.

The Windrush scandal

In the Windrush scandal, officials made arbitrary decisions deporting people who had been living legally in this country for decades. While the victims had a right to challenge these decisions, sadly many of them lacked the knowledge or the resources to be able to do so. The concept of the rule of law is fundamental to the very existence of a legal profession, and in turn requires the existence of lawyers to help people protect their freedoms.

Is my issue a legal problem?

Research shows that one of the biggest barriers people face in enforcing and defending their rights is actually recognising that their problem is in fact a legal problem. Many people turn to friends and family, community leaders, doctors, and other familiar sources for help with their problems, without ever thinking of seeking legal advice.

Public legal education can help to ensure that more people recognise when their problem might be one that a lawyer can help them with, and what it is that a lawyer can do for them. This will deliver significant benefits for society, with more people resolving their legal issues, and will be good for solicitors because more people will seek their advice.

Judges are not enemies of the people

One major issue that has emerged since 2016 is the low level of public understanding about  the relationship between Government, Parliament and the Courts. This lack of understanding led to the obscene spectacle of judges being branded as enemies of the people for carrying out their vital democratic role.

The balance between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary is at the heart of democracy. This separation of powers is the division of responsibilities into distinct branches of government by limiting any one branch from exercising the core functions of another. The intent of separation of powers is to prevent the concentration of power by providing for checks and balances.

An important part of maintaining the separation of powers is to ensure judicial impartiality. Judges are appointed by an independent panel, purely on the basis of legal excellence. The principle that politicians cannot appoint or sack judges is vital in ensuring that judges can act impartially, even when a Government body is one of the parties to a case, whether as the prosecutor in criminal cases, the respondent in judicial reviews, or the protector of the vulnerable in family care cases.

What is happening in America since 2018 is a good example of what happens when that balance becomes upset. The more the public understands the importance of this balance, the stronger our democracy will be. It will also help lawyers to demonstrate to the public why lawyers are so important in ensuring that the Courts are able to play their proper role within our democracy.

The climate emergency

In recent years the climate emergency has developed as a major topic of concern. Any public interest campaign can only be enhanced if those conducting it have an understanding of the legal system and the process of law-making. Successful campaigns will often involve test cases in the courts, particularly using judicial review, to challenge Government decisions and to open up public debate. They may wish to seek changes to legislation, or propose new legislation of their own.

Taking direct action

In taking direct action campaigners will need to understand the difference between actions which may attract criminal penalties, and those that could only give rise to civil claims against them. Anyone wanting to raise the profile of the climate emergency, and the pressure on Government to address it, will need a good understanding of how the law works to help them do so.

Having a population that is well informed about legal issues and the role of lawyers within it is vital to protect the freedoms we so often take for granted, to enforce and defend our rights, and to protect our democracy. And with the right tools in the hands of the right activists, it might just save our planet.