Young people need better access to Public Legal Education, but who should be responsible for ensuring this is done?


21st September 2022

This blog summarises our work with Mishcon de Reya on public legal education. As we think about the next steps for this research, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

 What is Public Legal Education (PLE)?

 Currently there is no single or fixed definition of Public Legal Education (PLE), although there is some consensus as to what PLE means and covers. In 2007, the independent Public Legal Education and Support (PLEAS) Task Force developed the following definition:

“PLE provides people with awareness, knowledge and understanding of rights and legal issues, together with the confidence and skills they need to deal with disputes and gain access to justice [and] … recognise when they may need support … and how to go about getting it.”

PLE may involve activities that build towards ‘legal literacy’, ‘legal capability’ or improved ‘public legal information’. Broadly, the aims of PLE are to:

  • raise participants’ awareness of their rights, the legal system and the wider justice system
  • enable people to identify the legal dimensions of everyday situations
  • provide people with the skills and knowledge to resolve issues and identify when they need legal help

All of the people we interviewed through our research for Mishcon de Reya believed that it was crucial for children and teenagers to have access to PLE. However, they also noted that young people’s access to PLE is patchy and often limited, with young people themselves calling for better access to information about the law and in particular their rights.

When PLE is delivered effectively, it can have a range of benefits. These include improving young people’s ‘legal capability’, and empowering them to know when they have a problem and where to go to seek help. We also found that effective PLE can also help young people to develop broader skills such as communication and their confidence to speak in public.

On the other hand, missing out on PLE can lead to a range of issues for young people. In particular, it was highlighted that it leaves young people unsure of their rights and unable to identify and solve legal difficulties when they arise. A lack of PLE can also leave young people feeling disenfranchised from political and legal systems and ‘unworthy’ of pursuing a legal career. In addition, a lack of strong PLE provision results in young people having highly variable access to quality PLE opportunities, with young people who could benefit often being the most at risk of missing out.

We also know that certain groups are more likely to have interactions with the police and the justice system. For example, young Black males in London are 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched than the general population.[1] The recent Child Q case also highlighted the need for young people and teachers to have a better understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities.[2]

The future of PLE faces significant issues. A lack of resources and awareness of available resources was one of the main barriers highlighted, with many explaining that this leaves teachers often feeling ill-equipped to lead PLE sessions. Participants in our fieldwork noted that teachers sometimes feel wary about teaching PLE out of fear of being labelled ‘too political’ or ‘troublesome’. Experts highlighted that it is vital that teachers feel prepared and able to teach young people PLE. Currently, PLE is largely dependent on support from third-sector organisations.

However, we know that schools cannot do everything and teachers already have to deal with a range of competing priorities, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, with many schools focusing on ensuring that pupils are able to catch up on missed ‘core’ learning. This begs the question, whose responsibility should it be to teach young people about their rights and who is best placed to do so?

This is unfortunately a bit of a catch22.

On the one hand, schools are undoubtedly best placed to reach pupils, particularly those in more rural areas where there are fewer organisations offering support with PLE. On the other hand, organisations already doing this work have the skills and expertise to ensure that the PLE young people are accessing is high-quality.

There are currently a plethora of organisations doing amazing work in this area that are ready to lend their expertise. One suggestion would be for a more centralised system that enables schools to connect with organisations delivering this work to ensure there is clarity about what is on offer and how to access it. This would ensure that schools are not having to duplicate work that has already been done and that pupils are accessing good quality PLE.

Another suggestion that came out of the research is that more should be done to ensure that teachers teaching PLE are able to access high-quality resources and training which will enable them to feel comfortable and well equipped to lead the sessions in schools.

Through our research we also suggested the following:

  1. Commissioning innovative pilot programmes that expand opportunities for young people – particularly those at risk of missing out.
  2. Convening a coalition of the active and committed but disparate group of organisations currently involved in PLE.
  3. Championing the systemic prioritisation of PLE for young people in England through lobbying and advocacy work.

Catch-22s can be solved. Perhaps we need some leading organisations and schools with a passion for this issue to work in partnership to develop and model new collaborative approaches to the best possible teaching of PLE. Our young people need this more than ever.