April 22 2024
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Waking up to PLE: ‘Is it ever OK to break the law?’

Waking up to PLE: ‘Is it ever OK to break the law?’

‘Is it ever OK to break the law?’ It was one of the questions directed at some 200 GCSE students at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney in December 2012, writes Jon Robins. As part of what we believe to be an innovative public legal education (PLE) project that we (www.thejusticegap.com) are running with Hackney Community Law Centre and University College London, the pupils had been given handheld clickers to record their responses to a set of questions on their views of the law and to test their understanding of key legal concepts.

Almost eight out of 10 pupils (79%) reckoned ‘Yes’ it was OK to break the law and one in five (21%) said ‘No’. So in what circumstances might it be reasonable to commit a crime, asked Jennie Rawlings, a law student at UCL.

  •  Pic of Lord Willy Bach, Deji Adeoshun and members of the HCVS police stop and search monitoring group on our visit to Mossbourne Academy
  • The fifth title (Waking up to PLE: Public legal education, access to justice and closing the justice gap) in the Justice Gap seriesconsiders the role of ‘public legal education’. The essays are as follows:
    • A question of legitimacy: Lisa Wintersteiger
    • Knowledge as Power: Nigel J. Balmer, Pascoe Pleasence and Catrina Denvir
    • Objectives and obligations: Professor Stephen Mayson
    • The Cinderella of legal services: Crispin Passmore
    • Young, legally incapable and possibly unaided: Lewis Parle
    • From punishment to protection: Laura Janes
    • Justice on the cheap: Michael Smyth CBE and Tom Dunn
    • PLE post LASPO: Jon Robins
    • The democratisation of legal services: Paul Gilbert
    • Widening the Net: Dr Angus Nurse
    • The Complexities of Legal Self-Help: Jeff Giddings, Merran Lawler and Michael Robertson
    • Citizenship and PLE: Molly Kearney and Ruth Dwight
    • Caught in a web: Alex Roy
    • A beginners’ guide: Mary Marvel




The responses were various – self-defence, necessity (‘… stealing a loaf of bread, to feed a family…’) came the expected answers. ‘If you are Batman,’ shouted out one comedian. ‘So you suggesting that there might be some overarching “greater good” requirement such as people whose lives need saving?’ queried Jennie.

Maybe. Mossbourne Academy is situated in an enormous Richard Rogers-designed building around the corner from Hackney Downs station. It is a stone’s throw from the Pembury Estate which saw some of the worst rioting in the summer of 2011. Some 60% of the school’s intake is reserved for pupils living within a kilometre of the school and one third receive free school meals (twice the national average). Over the last eight years Mossbourne has made the transition from one of Britain’s worst-performing schools to ‘outstanding’. The excellence of its results (10 six former had offers from Cambridge University last year) has led to huge political and press interest.

The Mossbourne students had a good understanding the legal concepts: than nine out 10 (91%) students correctly identified ‘10 years’ as the correct age of criminal legal responsibility.

The aims of the project (working title Mind the JusticeGap ) are three-fold:

  • to explain to young people key concepts about the law that will help in their day-to-day lives;
  • to encourage an understanding that the law can make a positive contribution to their lives (as opposed to reinforcing a sense that ‘the law’ is something to come into conflict with); and
  • to encourage the view that a career as a lawyer is one that is available to people whatever their background.

The project started last summer with a survey of 100 young people in the borough conducted by a team of peer reviewers organized by Hackney Council for Voluntary Services who are also involved in the project. We are determined the project genuinely reflects the experience of the young people we want to reach.

The end result will be a website written by UCL students in conjunction with an editorial board of young people from Hackney and overseen by Hackney Law Centre with www.thejusticegap.com as editorial control. There will be an ongoing series of events in schools and colleges in Hackney which is part of the law centre’s response to the LASPO cuts. The project’s editorial board includes Michael Mansfield QC and Lord Willy Bach. The former justice minister had a walk-on role as judge in a mock bail application in the case of a young man who takes part in a violent robbery of a cab driver on Lower Clapton Road – the former criminal barrister (who last year described LASPO as ‘wicked’) refused bail (more than two-thirds of our pupils disagreed with the peer).

We hope the model – matching law students keen to write about the law with specialist advisers at an advice agency/ law firm/ barristers chambers with the JusticeGap as editorial control – can be replicated in other areas of law. For students it is an attractive and interesting way of building their CVs; for the advice agency partner, it is a way of building their profile (which has the upsides of grounding a project in a community and ensuring copy doesn’t become out of date); and we (www.thejusticegap.com) have the editorial skills to oversee the project and make sure it is compelling and written in a way that engages its target audience.

‘Our Law Centre has served the local community for nearly 40 years and assisting our local young people to reach their full potential is one of our key priorities,’ comments Sean Canning, manager at Hackney Community Law Centre.  ‘It will help give our young people more confidence to deal with the main legal hurdles they regularly face– be it stop and search, employment issues or housing.’

The ‘grassroots approach’ of working together with young people in Hackney is ‘an excellent opportunity for our students to confront access to justice issues on the ground and put their legal knowledge to good use in the community’, comments UCL’s Jacqueline Kinghan.

PLE is a term that applies to the disparate collection of activities that provides ordinary people with an awareness and understanding of their rights together with the confidence and skill to assert them if needed.

The law is the easy bit
The best PLE projects are not lawyer-led but multidisciplinary projects. To quote Mary Marvel from Advicenow elsewhere in this collection: ‘You need a range of expertise and contacts to design and deliver really good PLE. Communication skills and the ability to engage the audience and foster learning are just as important as legal knowledge.’ Frankly, the law is the easy bit.

We launched wwww.thejusticegap.com on October 6th 2011, the day that the legal services market was opened up through the introduction of alternative business structures. Our attention was also on the calamitous impact of the then Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bull (now Act) – the biggest scaling back of the legal aid regime since it was introduced under the welfare state. That legislation will radically alter the relationship between ordinary people and the law. Imaginative and engaging PLE projects have a role to play (admittedly limited) in plugging a growing justice gap.

A focus for PLE projects must be the courts. Legal aid cuts mean our already creaking court system is going to have to cope with the frustrations of unrepresented litigants in unprecedented numbers. As well as scrapping much of what is known as social welfare law, the legal aid act ends funding for family law (except where there is evidence of domestic violence) – on the government’s own figures there were 53,800 cases last year where people received representation before the courts on legal aid scheme (a further 211,000 family cases where people received initial advice and assistance).

A paper by the Civil Justice Council published at end of 2011 predicted the courts were going to be deluged by a new generation of litigants-on-person (rebranded as ‘self-represented litigants’ ). ‘Every informed prediction is that, by reason of the forthcoming reductions and changes in legal aid, the number of self-represented litigants will increase, and on a considerable scale. Such litigants will be the rule rather than the exception,’ it said.

The CJC paper made a series of recommendations (modestly but accurately) describing them as ‘making the best of a bad job’. PLE was ‘the true starting point for helping the public and thereby those who could become self-represented litigants’, it noted.

Now you might think that, as a consequence of the long-standing pressures from litigants-in-person, that our courts were awash with self-help literature to assist those people unfortunate enough not to be eligible for legal aid or able to afford a lawyer.

An information expert recently described court forms and guidance ‘the worst set of public documents I’ve ever seen’ in report by Advicenow published at the end of 2012 (commissioned by the CJC). That’s shocking.

A guide aimed at self-represented litigants by Mr Justice Foskett was published this year for interim applications in the Queen’s Bench Division. Such initiatives need to be supported and encouraged. The guide is full of sensible, practical advice but frankly there is little feeling for the experience of the litigant, no illustrative examples to assist their understanding and it’s written in an overly legalistic language (‘sub-paragraphed propositions’ and ‘paginated bundles’).

‘Only too often the litigant in person is regarded as a problem for judges and for the court system rather that the person for whom the system of justice exists. The true problem is the court system and its procedures which are still too often inaccessible and incomprehensible to ordinary people.’ That critique was by Lord Woolf in his 1995 Access to Justice report. Not much has changed.

The Mind the JusticeGap project is a PLE project but it isn’t about the legal aid cuts. It’s about enthusing young people about the topic of legal rights and reminding them the law isn’t just an oppressive force that tries to stop them doing things – but is about protecting them from dodgy landlords, bad employers etc and more generally empowering them. We also want to deliver a positive message that you can have a career in the law no matter what your background is.

As enthusiastic as some of the Mossbourne pupils were about the prospect of a career in law, there was also a streak of realism running through any expectations: two thirds (66%) disagreed with the proposition that the legal profession was ‘open to all’ and almost half (46%) thought that ‘most lawyers’ went to private school. Some six out of 10 students (61%) rightly identified that less than 5% of the judiciary came from nonwhite backgrounds.

What did they make of the fact that only some 3% of judges actually come from ethnic minority backgrounds, I asked after the session. What kind of message does that send out? ‘That it’s really difficult to become a barrister or a judge – and that it depends on your ethnicity. It’s not shocking. I expected it,’ said Oliver Chen.