Legally Incapable: Is Now the Crucial Time for Investment in Public Legal Education for Young People?

It would not be a gross generalisation to say that many in the legal profession in the UK would wince at the idea of young people being taught to use the law as a tool to manage their affairs and claim their rights. Common reactions may well focus on the old adage that “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing”, or the absurdity of young people needing to know anything about the law. But, in these gloomy economic times when young people’s (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) debts spiral, their advice and support services downsized or removed, and the looming legal aid cuts threaten the closure of the few specialised legal advice services that support them, what is to stop them falling into an even bigger access to justice black hole? Is now the time for public legal education to be considered as a credible long term solution, to enable young people to become legally capable and grasp justice with their own hands? 

In 2009, Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS), a London based youth-led social policy think-tank, with the support of the Public Legal Education Network (PLENet) undertook a pilot study into young people’s legal capability. The research focused on young people who may be considered disadvantaged and to some extent marginalised. The report, Measuring Young People’s Legal Capability, perhaps unsurprisingly, found that young people, through a lack of skills, knowledge and confidence, struggle to resolve even the most basic of law related problems. Anger, reticence, desperation, depression and ill health were all responses and or consequences of the research’s participants being unable to handle their own law related issues. The problem is best enunciated by quoting three of the research’s participants, all girls aged 16 -20 talking about law related problems they had faced in the past. One said “I know what I mean in my head, I just don’t know how to say it¸ another pleaded “I felt sad and cried a lot, couldn’t concentrate on work. I had little time to talk to my parents and it got worse when I did talk to them” and finally another girl said “I felt helpless throughout the whole period. The problem had built up over a period of time and it just made me not want to go into work”. 

If we are to assume that this particular problem of legal (in)capability is widespread amongst young people, the next question that maybe asked is, “why can’t they go to their local community law centre to get help”? It hardly needs to be stated that the legal aid advice sector is already squeezed. But, more importantly IARS’ research combined with anecdotal evidence from those in the advice sector, suggest that young people do not use law centres or approach advice professionals for a number of reasons. Firstly, of the young people IARS spoke to, many did not have the knowledge or skills to identify they had a legal problem in the first place until it reached such a stage, that the stress of the situation deterred them from doing anything at all. Secondly, the research also showed that young people’s preferred agents of advice were not advice professionals, but their friends, family, teachers, youth workers and so on – people they know and trust. 

The result: young people with clusters of legal problems, often unbeknown to them, a lack of knowledge of rights and responsibilities, a lack of the relevant skills needed to resolve law related problems, and an unwillingness/inability to seek relevant advice.

When faced with such evidence, the case for legal empowerment of young people through public legal education (PLE), begins to make itself. But, in the UK at least, PLE is a relatively unknown concept and is perhaps seen as risky because it is fairly difficult to prove the impact of many PLE practices. At the present time, it is left to organisations like PLENet and IARS to make the case for PLE and trial innovative initiatives with the limited funding available. One such initiative is IARS’ Young Justice Champions Project. Funded by a private trust, the programme puts into practice the recommendations from the Measuring Young People’s Legal Capability report. The project is essentially a training programme that focuses on improving the skills required to become legally capable through focusing on scenarios within a number of areas of law, including: citizenship, employment law, housing law and police powers. 

Watching PLE initiatives such as the Young Justice Champions Project in practice and seeing young people grappling with legal concepts, putting into practice skills such as negotiation, and using the internet to search for answers to their problems, you cannot help but get excited at the possibilities. The case for supporting and funding PLE initiatives like these should be strong; strategically implemented in schools for instance, they could enable people to spot and resolve law related problems before they spiral out of control, thereby lessening the need for and dependency on legal aid in the future. For the moment though, it seems there will be little legal aid, little public legal education and many legally (in)capable young people with mounting law related problems. 

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