LSRC Research: 'Knowledge, capability and experience of rights problems'

Research undertaken by the Legal Services Research Centre and published by Plenet looks at the knowledge and capability of the population of England and Wales in the context of social and civil legal issues.

The research was based on interviews with 10,000 randomly selected people and used data taken from the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey. This summary draws on the findings of the report.

Read the research: Knowledge, capability and experience of rights problems (810 KB)

The report looks at different groups in society based on their levels of capability, and at how capability relates to the way people handle the legal issues they face. It concludes that there are extensive gaps in knowledge, skills and confidence in the population but these barriers to legal capability are not evenly distributed across different groups or problem types. This research will help target interventions and maximise the effectiveness of public legal education activities.

Key findings

  • Less than half of respondents did not obtain advice at the time of their problem. Of those interviewed 34% handled their problems alone – just fewer than 10% did nothing and 2% tried and failed to get advice.
  • Strategies differed significantly based on problem areas – so for example discrimination, police treatment and clinical negligence featured high levels of inaction, and those who did try often failed to obtain advice. 60% of people with consumer problems handled the problem alone; this was also the case for those reporting rented housing issues, debt and welfare problems (all around 40%), and 20% of those with homelessness problems did nothing.
  • Strategies also differed based on social and demographic factors; for example BME respondents had lower rates of obtaining advice.
  • 64.8% of respondents said that they did not know their rights. Nearly 70% said that they had no knowledge of legal processes. Even where people said that they did know about the processes, they did not know how to use them.
  • Disadvantaged groups were less likely to know their rights. Women, people with mental health problems, and people with long-term illness or disability were less likely to know their rights.

'I wish I had known then what I know now, I would have dealt with things differently'

'I should have found out about my legal position before ending the contract'

  • A lack of knowledge of rights indicated a reduction in the number of people obtaining advice, an increase in trying and failing to get advice, higher rates of regret over action taken, a reduced likelihood of meeting objectives when handling a problem alone and a far greater likelihood of stress related ill health when dealing with problem alone.
  • Around 70% of respondents with mental health problems, long term illness and disability did not to know their rights.
  • Knowledge of rights and processes were related to an increase in respondents meeting all of their objectives.
  • Whether or not people had knowledge of rights made little difference to whether they met their objectives where advice was obtained. However, it made a large difference where respondents handled their problem alone, with knowledge being related to superior outcomes.
  • Where respondents handled their problem alone those who knew their rights were twice as likely to completely meet their objectives as those who did not (65% compared with 30%).
  • In areas of discrimination, police treatment and clinical negligence 30% of the respondents had done nothing about their problem. In addition, 20% of the respondents had done nothing about homelessness.
  • An analysis of social and demographic indicators revealed 'extensive differences'. Respondents living in high density accommodation, and female respondents were most likely not to have obtained advice, lacked knowledge and suffered adverse consequences.
  • BME respondents had lower rates of obtaining advice and 'other ethnicity' respondents had twice the percentage of doing nothing compared to other groups. Higher numbers of Asian respondents did not know their rights.
  • The youngest and oldest age groups (18 - 24) and (75+) had the lowest percentage obtaining advice and the highest doing nothing and handling alone.
  • Use of self help materials (e.g. leaflets, booklets, books) and the internet to solve problems was not greatly influenced by knowledge of rights. There was some evidence that people with some prior knowledge did get the information they needed although the research revealed the paucity of information in non-legalistic 'plain English'. 'This may have been an impediment to their ability to resolve the matter independently.'
  • Respondents frequently regretted not adopting a more proactive approach to dealing with the problem before it escalated.

The researchers commented:

'The way in which action remains contingent on knowledge is implicit in the responses provided, and indicative of how greater awareness, particularly in relation to time frames and procedures may facilitate early action.'


The report includes a discussion of their findings and looks at three key areas: the research implications for the targeting of PLE interventions, what the research findings tell us about achieving behaviour change and recommendations for further research to address current gaps in knowledge.

Targeting public legal education interventions

The findings illustrated that a significant number of people lack knowledge skills and confidence when dealing with civil justice problems. However, these barriers to legal capability are not evenly spread across the population or across different legal problem categories.

The report suggests:

  • Public legal education initiatives should be designed with regard to specific population groups, problem types and with a view to those who might benefit from PLE interventions. For example PLE activities for disadvantaged groups, should aim to raise awareness of - and signposting to - sources of advice. For more affluent groups, those not in receipt of means tested benefits and not suffering mental health problems education initiatives aimed at self-help might prove successful.
  • PLE might be more necessary for some legal issues than others. Particular attention should be paid to issues where the respondents did not act but reported that they had wanted to (discrimination, employment) and those issues where respondents tried and failed to get advice (unfair police treatment, discrimination, clinical negligence).
  • PLE interventions need to address underlying attitudes and confidence issues. For example women were more likely to give reasons for inaction related to the problem being ‘too stressful to sort out’ or being ‘too scared’.
  • PLE providers should consider targeting initiatives to those areas of law where the respondents took no action. 'Here, consideration should be given to the capability issues that underlie the failure to secure appropriate advice. This might include the ability to persevere, as well as practical skills such as effective communication.'
  • PLE methods of delivery play a key role in the targeting of interventions. The report recommends that research is needed to establish which types of methods work best, and at what cost for different groups and different legal problems. An action research methodology is recommended to test effective interventions aimed at achieving behaviour change.

Achieving behaviour change

The report provides a valuable oversight of targeting issues. It is evident that giving people the tools to solve their problems may be insufficient and that it is necessary to assess people's wider capabilities in the process of assessing their PLE needs.

Observations made in the report:

  • Successful PLE initiatives have the potential to break entrenched behaviour patterns, so as to encourage people to adopt an advice-seeking strategy based on appropriateness rather than previous behaviour.
  • Interpretations applied to the process of change are symptomatic of self-esteem, ability to cope, motivation, entrenched avoidance behaviour, life circumstances and support networks, and these are all factors that remain specific to the individual.
  • Decision-making and consequent behaviour does not occur in a vacuum, and is influenced by many different factors. Intrinsic factors such as attitudes, norms, agency, habit and emotion are as important as extrinsic factors that remain beyond an individual's control.
  • One model cannot be adopted to the exclusion of others.
  • Designing PLE interventions need to take into account the 'whole' person as well as contextual factors, if they are to achieve behavioural change.
  • The timing of PLE interventions is crucial for behaviour change. People are likely to be more receptive to 'just-in-time' education; that is, at a time when they need information and help. Education delivered during this time may produce optimum results.
  • When designing and refining PLE interventions providers should consider the principles of action research outlined by Darnton which engages the audience in the process of refining interventions.
  • It is recommended that more needs to be done to shed light on this under-researched area, including clarifying how legal capability could be best measured as well as research on self help, large scale survey work and analysis on the cost effectiveness of PLE interventions.
  • Commissioned by Plenet, 'Knowledge, capability and experience of rights problems' was written by Dr Nigel J Balmer, Alexy Buck, Ash Patel, Catrina Denvir and Professor Pascoe Pleasence at the Legal Services Research Centre and published in May 2010.

Read the press release: 'Two thirds of people do not know their rights:New report highlights need for public legal education' (101 KB)

Dr Nigel Balmer ran a workshop at Plenet's 2010 conference where he presented some slides about the survey (272 KB).

The English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey (CSJS)

The data in this report came from the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey (CSJS) which is a nationally representative survey of the adult population of England and Wales. It provides detailed information on the nature, pattern and impact of people's experience of rights problems and the use and success of problem resolution strategies. The data is taken from the CSJS covering the period January 2006 to January 2009. The survey randomly selected 6,234 household totalling 10,537 adult respondents who were interviewed individually by BMRB Social Research.

More about the: Civil and Social Justice Survey

Legal Services Research Centre

The Legal Services Research Centre (LSRC) is the independent Research Division of the Legal Services Commission (LSC). It was set up in 1996 to inform legal aid policy and the implementation of reform.

More about the Legal Services Research Centre and current projects