Law for Life is ten years old today

How fast the years have flown and now this fledgeling institute for public legal education (PLE) is punching above its weight and indeed throwing its weight around as a ten-year-old should do.

We were recently commissioned by the Ministry of Justice to deliver housing rights courses for trusted intermediaries who work with vulnerable women. Those courses have been massively oversubscribed by social prescribers, demonstrating the hunger for this sort of vital information, as Fiona Rutherford told the launch of the UCL Law for Health stream just last week.

At last, policy makers are getting the point that PLE isn’t just something delivered in schools but a vital force for social justice in communities. If you want to reach the hardest to reach, you need to empower the people in the places where they already turn for help. You need to give these trusted intermediaries the knowledge, skills and confidence to help the most vulnerable who would otherwise fall through the net.

I’ve seen this come alive on our housing rights courses, this week and back in the deep, dark days of January when I joined a Law for Life evening forum on using judicial review on housing rights. This is a really difficult, technical subject. Everyone present was totally engaged. Including the wonderful community activist joining from a phone perched above her stove while she stirred and spiced a meal for many in huge pots, finishing just in time to ask some pertinent questions of the presenters. This is public legal education in ACTION.

It took me back to attending a Plenet theatre session on enforcing one’s rights in which young people engaged and commented and learnt how to stand up for themselves and the rights they could rely on and the attitudes and modes of behaviour that would cement that reliance.

It took me back to the wonderful Seven steps to solving a legal problem which is always worth a quick revision session before you challenge recalcitrant authority. We needed it this week for the car hire company!

t took me back to commissioning a PLE campaign to bust the common law marriage myth. The wonderful team who worked on it were all in long- term relationships. By the end of the campaign, all but one had decided that, having debunked the myth, they knew enough to know it was time they got married. But we also heard from lots of vulnerable women who realised the reality of their situation but were powerless to do anything about it. The Law Commission have grappled with that problem without success. Advicenow has  great guides to help people in this situation get it right from the start.

I have always been an enthusiast for public legal education. When I was a Director at the MOJ I saw it as an essential element in the delivery tool box of legal advice and representation, specialist and general advice and a help-yourself resource full of information and guidance. I knew that many of us, with knowledge, skills and confidence could tackle problems that at first seemed insurmountable. I’ve used that approach to help friends and family- and used Advicenow to do so. And we know that many users of Advicenow are helping others in that capacity, or as health professionals, community workers, volunteers.

Let’s go  back to the beginning with a little bit of history.  Law for Life came into being after the wonderful work of the PLEAS Task Force which recommended the establishment of a ‘PLE Centre’ to take forward the work of developing public legal education as an important element of legal services. The MOJ then funded the Advice Services Alliance to set up the Public Legal Education Network (Plenet) - with the aim of implementing the Task Force’s recommendations. The Network was launched in 2008. It brought together people working on public legal education in the UK and internationally.  

Plenet undertook research to identify the need for PLE more precisely and ran pilot projects to test different methods of delivering PLE to establish what works effectively. Key projects included a project to measure the legal capability of disadvantaged young people; work with a theatre group to develop a performance for youth in schools and pupil referral units to increase ability to deal with rent arrears and eviction; an EU funded ‘Progress’ PLE project, with Advicenow, with eleven front-line advice agencies on how to deal with discrimination; and research with Bristol University to develop an evaluation framework for PLE. 

After 3 years development as a network, Law for Life was formally constituted as a company limited by guarantee and registered as a charity in 2011, and I was delighted to become a Trustee under Michael Smyth’s chairmanship. Our reach was expanded when the Advicenow website and its talented team moved to join us from the Advice Services Alliance in 2013.  

It’s worth remembering that Advicenow was originally funded by the Legal Services Commission as part of its delivery strategy which also included expert helplines, as well as legal help and representation. That approach was prescient and way ahead of its time. That steady annual funding was crucial. It allowed for the development of new topics to meet emerging need and the constant updating of the whole resource. And its reach – even then- was wide and deep. 

Law for Life was ahead of the game in realising that people were increasingly accessing information on their smart phone. I still remember the heady summer evening when the team and I were walking down Charlotte Street after a conference and Mary Marvel called out to us that the mobile site had gone live. We all stopped to search for it on our phones. I still tend to reach for it on my phone: it’s so brilliant.

We don’t just use our expertise to develop the resources for Advicenow. We help others to consider what they are doing and make it more useable by people seeking to find a way through a maze of rules and legislation. We have been commissioned by the Civil Justice Council to look at the information needs of LIPs, and by the Bar Standards Board and Bar Council to improve their public facing resources. 

Our Survival guide to benefits sanctions was developed at the explicit request of a group of vulnerable mental health patients: it was their number one ask. Our Film on Child Protection issues was developed at the request of the Roma Community and is spoken in Romanes with English subtitles. Many child protection professionals have encouraged us to do more in this field, reaching hard to reach families who feel that nobody is on their side.

Our PIP Mandatory Reconsideration Tool is used by many professional benefits advisors, as they told me once at their annual conference. Our family resources are used by many family lawyers to help their clients understand and revisit the issues they have been advised on – and to train their new recruits. And now, in our partnership with Resolution, we have an integrated pathway that includes information and guidance on Advicenow, leading to low cost, fixed price advice sessions with family lawyers. A wonderful example of unbundled help. 

We are proud to be part of the MOJ’s Litigants in Person Engagement Group, speaking truth to power and usually, eventually, getting through. We are proud to work with partners in the Litigants in Person Support Strategy, and to be the public facing portal and the “go to “website for our partners, especially all the Support Through Court staff and volunteers. We value our partners’ in-person engagement with people in need. They value our resources which supplement their expertise and empathy. Together we can achieve so much more.

Well, we are ten this year, and throwing our weight around as befits an organisation in double figures. We have learnt so much from our evaluation and research about how people gain in knowledge skills and confidence from our training and our online resources. We have great ambitions for our next ten years:  ambitions that we know we must try our best to achieve for the sake of all the people who use our resources, whether it’s Advicenow, our wonderful training courses, our guided pathways to family help or our research on what works.

Amanda Finlay - Chair of Law for Life

14th July 2021