Public Legal Education - unfinished business?

Written as part of the Justice Debate in 2002, Nony Ardill from Legal Action Group outlines three different approaches to public legal education - legal information, community legal education and legal literacy.

Ms Ardill argues that public legal education should be endorsed by the government as a valuable tool in furthering its own policy agenda. She uses the examples of fostering a human rights agenda, active citizenship and empowering socially excluded communities.

Read the article: Public legal education - unfinished business (84 KB)

The article considers the characteristics of current approaches to public legal education:

Legal information

Ms Ardill suggests that legal information whether provided in leaflets or on the internet is limited because it can do no more than feed standard information to people. She argues that the effective use of leaflets requires targeted distribution - they have to reach the right person at the right time. Providing information via the internet is an improvement as it is easier to update and search facilities can allow material to be found with relative ease.

However, both methods require a reasonable level of literacy in English and some knowledge of legal concepts. They are valuable to users who have already identified a need for information, for consolidating advice and information given face to face and can act as a springboard for further advice.

Ms Ardill stresses that one-way information is no substitute for interactive discussion.

Community legal education

Community based approaches pioneered mainly within the not for profit sector aim to make individuals and community groups aware of the law and to give them greater confidence in asserting their rights. Typically, community legal education takes place in an interactive setting and covers a wide range of activities.

Legal education often takes place in the context of collective legal action. The article gives the example of work with a particular community to help it challenge a planning application which gives that community a far greater understanding of the law and the procedures involved. Legal education involves a commitment to inform and empower individuals and communities so that they can make significant improvements to their living conditions or their local environment.

Community legal education of this type however is limited by resources and the casework-based contract regime introduced by government.

Legal literacy

Legal literacy is concerned with promoting an underlying public awareness of the legal system. Active citizenship requires people to participate in decision making which means that people need to have an understanding of their relationship with the state, including the legal system and an awareness of their legal rights and duties. The focus for the delivery of legal literacy has been via the school curriculum and its inclusion in lessons on citizenship.

Ms Ardill argues that citizenship awareness should be extended through to adulthood, 'if people are to develop competence to understand their responsibilities properly and to identify and act on their problems.'

Using the examples of the government commitment to empower socially excluded communities, the promotion of active citizenship, and fostering a human rights culture, the article concludes public legal education should address community or collective legal needs as well as individual ones.


In 'A Strategy for Justice' published in 1992, Legal Action Group (LAG) advocated that 'education and information on legal rights should be identified as a priority in the context of an increasing concern with the concept of citizenship.' While the Community Legal Service established Community Legal Advice to provide information about the law on the internet, the Legal Services Commission has not fully taken on board responsibility for delivering public legal education as envisaged by LAG.