Why do we need public legal education?

Our head of justice Richard Miller explains why it's so important for the integrity of the law, and for lawyers, that the general public understand their own legal rights and how the legal system works.
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Over the past few years, there has been extensive discussion about “public legal education”, 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 enable people to address their own problems. They can show people the contribution that solicitors and the legal profession make.

Most significantly, they can also help people understand what is truly at stake in some of the biggest political debates.

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 authoritarianism. And it is a crucial tool in how people fight for the causes they care about.

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.

Political rhetoric has increasingly sought to portray lawyers and judges seeking to apply the law as passed by parliament as thwarting the will of the people, when what they are actually doing is upholding it.

When a judicial review is successful, it means that a public body has acted in a way that parliament did not give it the power to act, and the court has upheld the will of parliament against the will of the government.

The balance between the executive (the government), the legislature (parliament) 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.

This is why we have spoken out so strongly about the Rwanda legislation. Legislating to deem Rwanda as a safe country – when our highest court has made a factual finding that this is not the case – seriously undermines our constitutional balance of powers.

Lockdown rules

During the pandemic, we saw an example of how literally any one of us could find ourselves in conflict with the authorities.

The police had to enforce rules relating to lockdown. These rules had had to be drawn up and applied quickly. As a result, there were numerous examples of authorities getting the rules wrong in the penalties they did or did not impose.

Our independent judges were a vital piece of the jigsaw in ensuring that people had the ability to challenge decisions made about them if they thought those decisions were wrong.

A non-political judiciary

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.

Events in the United States since 2018, with its highly politicised Supreme Court, are 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 us to demonstrate to the public why lawyers and judges are so important in ensuring that the courts are able to play their proper role within our democracy.

Climate change

In recent years climate change 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.

As of April 2024, 118 climate-related cases have been filed in the United Kingdom (source Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law), many of which are public interest litigation related claims which consider the harm suffered by claimant groups or individuals caused by government or corporations' contributions towards failing to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

Successful campaigns will often involve test cases in the courts, particularly using judicial review, to challenge government decisions and to open up public debate.

For example, in 2022, Friends of the Earth filed a claim for judicial review against the Secretary of State, in relation to the Net Zero Strategy and the Heat and Buildings Strategy arguing that both strategies were unlawfully adopted.

This is because the Climate Change Act 2008 requires the UK Government to adopt policies for it to meet the carbon reduction targets set out within the Act.

Campaigners may also have to defend themselves against misconceived attempts by those in authority to class their actions as criminal.

In April 2024, the High Court threw out the case against Trudi Warner. Warner had stood outside a court with a placard spelling out a jury’s right to acquit protesters according to their conscience.

Know your rights

It is important that protesters understand their rights, in order to stay the right side of the line, and to know how to respond to inappropriate policing of protests.

But it is not just in protesting that people need to know their rights. It is something that affects everybody’s day to day life.

The Legal Needs Survey published in April 2024 reinforced previous research showing 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.


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.

This is why we support Young Citizens, whose Big Legal Lesson teaches young people about their rights and responsibilities. And it is why we will continue to do what we can to combat rhetoric which is framed as anti-lawyer, but is actually anti-law, so hopefully a growing number of people will understand, and stand up for, the rule of law.