What next for Public Legal Education?

 New initiatives which more than scratch the surface of PLE

 An interview with Tom Tugendhat MBE MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Public Legal Education (PLE)

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse”.  How often is that phrase thrown at people? Frankly, far too often, as readers of “The Barrister” will probably recall… uncomfortably, from past cases! The problem remains a lack of legal education initiatives, even at a basic level, as we begin the new legal year for 2017-18. But things are changing quickly to plug the void of ignorance over “the Law”.

This phrase “public legal education” (bit of a tongue-twister) is, we think, now more familiar to a much wider group of the public since access to legal aid was cut several years ago and with the emerging digital world and the internet.

And we can say it is thanks, in part, to the developing, lead work of the All Party Parliamentary group on PLE chaired by Tom Tugendhat MBE MP and comprising representatives from a wide range of organisations and viewpoints.

Mr Tom Tugendhat is an unassuming man to meet. He has a quiet and courteous manner which belies the very clear mission he has in his life as an MP to serve his constituents and the public.  He comes from a legal and a political family: his father a High Court Judge, Sir Michael Tugendhat; his uncle a Conservative politician, Christopher Tugendhat, now Baron Tugendhat. The strength of his expertise also rests with what he brings to his role- he is not a lawyer but knows what we do!

To compound this background, Tom has been a senior Army officer becoming a lieutenant colonel in July 2013 in the Intelligence Corps. He saw service on operations during the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. And as the military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff he has obtained a strong grounding on how the upper echelons of the MOD operate.

The icing on the cake (so far) has been his election as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 12th July 2017.  Since 2015, he has represented the safe Conservative seat of Tonbridge and Malling in Kent with a majority of over 23,000 votes in 2017. And he was opposed to Brexit prior to the 2016 referendum, although so much of the political landscape has now changed.

LAW AND EDUCATION

So, what has all this got to do with law and education? Quite a lot, actually! Tom co-authored a fascinating Policy Exchange report on 8th October 2013 with Laura Croft.  It was called “The Fog of Law: An Introduction to the legal erosion of British fighting power”. A mix of the law and the military and a very good read for all.

And that is where we started the interview in his office earlier this year prior to the June 2017 General Election. The main subject chosen at the time was to be his role as chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) covering Public Legal Education (PLE) and broader concepts of his work which we drifted towards, as one does when the interviewee opens-up so well.

I was interested in the report’s proposition which “exposes the spread of law onto the battlefield” being an ex-soldier myself. The Policy Exchange report – a “think tank” political group if you like, but highly influential – shows how the application of civilian norms to military conduct has led to a surge in legal claims against the MOD. A good example, perhaps of the need to spread the news of PLE.

“The costs of litigation”, Tugendhat explains, “have risen out of proportion with forecasts”. So, this is the introduction to why educating the mind legally of the public is becoming an area of some controversy- sadly there is still the “ignorance is bliss” school of thought with some clients.

At this stage, I will bring in Mr Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover (majority over 5,000).  Now Dennis is always welcome for his “alternative” comments and the pithy one liners he delivers at State Openings: “I have never done any cross-party stuff, I can’t even contemplate it”, he declares.  And that, of course, is where the real problem lies.  It’s not even based on modern party-political lines but it appears, with respect to Dennis, to be the stuff of the past which he represents: anything anti-Tory/LibDem etc.  His day is probably done, though when it comes to the “all party” concepts and structures of groups like the PLE and the select committees voted in by MPs across the spectrum, so “the times they are a changing” for the far Left.

THE APPG ON PLE

But not all socialists, thankfully, take this view as membership of the APPG on PLE shows. The group is sponsored by the Legal Action Group – the access to justice charity known to all of us for their books which we rely heavily upon when giving advice and representation in court. One of its leading members is the courageous crossbencher Colin Low, Lord Low of Dalston, who has always been prepared to speak to other parties to further PLE with the decline of legal aid for welfare law. Other members include the redoubtable Steve Hynes from LAG, and the group is organised by James Sandbach.

“An essential of daily life”, says Tugendhat, “is the ability of people in society to understand what goes on in the complex legal environment we live in”. He takes an example of a century ago: where something may have gone wrong legally, there would be limits on what could be done to sort matters out or to understand what was happening- times have changed.  “Today”, he says, “there is a spread of law into almost every aspect of daily life” which means we all should have the basic skills and knowledge to understand how the common law works…. so, we need to be educated on matters legal.

The APPG on PLE works closely with the legal ‘pro bono’ organisations and charities.  It’s fair to say that many lawyers, counsel and solicitors, undertake substantial pro bono work today which goes largely unrecognized.  But we are moving into a different world today and we all see it in our practice!  Tugendhat and his group members (of which I am one) see the need for making better use of resources at a time of the rise of digitisation and online courts.

THE DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION’S ROLE

Towards the end of our interview, I asked about the role of the Department for Education (a previous incumbent there having become Justice Secretary, of course, sometime thereafter). “Does the Department hold one of the keys to the Group’s success?”  The answer to that is, naturally, obvious- yes! No fudging. “No ifs, no buts” (to use a phrase) as we enter the world of “basic legal literacy” so the work should begin in the schools to enable our citizens to have that understanding of law for we still work on the basic (a most convenient maxim for our leaders) that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. The best of the “legal fictions” ever created!

AND STEP FORWARD THE LAW OFFICERS

Just to complete this perspective on PLE since the General Election, we have one major step forward in the summer of 2017 with the announcement by the Government’s law officers of the creation of the PLE panel, chaired by Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC MP. Robert declares that “the panel is a collection of organisations that aim to promote the importance of teaching the public about the law and their basic civil and criminal rights”. And the panel “wanted to cover issues such as ‘knowing if you’re entitled to a refund in a shop or whether you’ve been a victim of discrimination”.

The law officers tell us that the PLE panel will “provide a platform” for Robert Buckland and Jeremy Wright “to work with organisations in the field”, enabling PLE “to flourish and to encourage initiatives which improve legal capability” (their words).

This panel will meet bi-annually and will include representatives from the Law Society, Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, Magistrates’ Association, Ministry of Justice, Judicial Office, Solicitors Regulation Authority, Law for Life, Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, Youth Access, Law Centres Federation and the Citizen Advice organisations. It can be said, possibly with some confidence after years of false starts, that this is a real start. The trouble is that we have been here before but possibly this time we might see some action to make better use of resources.  It is worth considering, too, that nearly 50% of younger people are now attending university so we are becoming a better-informed society.

News of this initiative is brought into our broader concepts as it follows closely on the heels of the discussions that the APPG on PLE have held during the last Parliament whilst Tugendhat moves on to chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this summer.

So, possibly the last word comes from the law officers themselves rather that Tom although the sentiments will be shared by all:

“Teaching people about their legal rights and responsibilities, together with helping them gain the confidence and skills to get access to justice can really make a difference to people’s lives – as well as our legal system”.

DON’T FORGET THE BAR COUNCIL

We must not forget the Bar Council as well.  As part of a commitment to public legal education, it, together with the Citizenship Foundation have contacted every secondary school in the UK to give them access to what are called “classroom resources that explain how judges help citizens to hold Government to account. The resources show how the British constitution helps to guard against persecution and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state.

The Citizenship Foundation with the support of the Bar Council, the resources was developed in the wake of the High Court ruling on Article 50 last year and the subsequent attacks on the judiciary.  And explaining the role of an independent judiciary in our democratic system is just a part of the Bar Council’s work as we all know and appreciate.

THE FUTURE FOR CROSS-PARTY WORK

As with other members of the APPG on PLE, I have been proud of the work which has been done so far to raise the PLE profile. It is thanks to the enlightment of Tom Tugendhat and all the parties represented on that group that we enter a new era for PLE coming at a time when we see the greatest changes to our legal system since the Judicature Acts. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” and maybe, that might just become truth rather than fiction one day.

I just hope the view that “I don’t do this cross-part stuff” is now stuff of the past for 21st century, but thanks for the one-liner, Dennis.

By Phillip Taylor MBE, Reviews Editor of “The Barrister” and Head of Richmond Green Chambers

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