We often take for granted just how much of a 'law thick' world we live in: the law is all around us, but we rarely engage with it until a problem arises. For many decades access to justice and legal needs research has been exploring how the public experience and resolve civil justice problems. How do people handle legal problems? Do they know these problems are legal in nature? How capable are they of navigating the resolution process, and the justice system with or (as it often the case) without legal representation, advice or assistance?
In spite of the fact that the law plays such a large role in our lives (whether we recognise it or not), there is little attention paid to educating the public on matters of law. We know from access to justice research that in the absence of alternative guidance, our understanding of the law derives from our own perceptions of fairness or morality. We expect the law to fall in line with what is fair, because this is a rational conclusion. Of course, the law does not just operate to uphold individual subjective perceptions of fairness, it feeds into a broader ecosystem. Where our assumptions about the law deviates from what the law actually requires, we get into trouble. We also know from the psychological literature that we act to confirm rather than challenge our bias and we tend to seek information that aligns with our preconceptions. In the civil justice space, this can result in us failing to take action or taking action doomed to fail.
How then do we correct people's assumptions and/or make them aware of the legal rights and responsibilities that govern our lives and society? Public Legal Education (PLE) offers us one method, but it must face the 'Goldilocks' dilemma of timing: if we provide this information too early, it will not be remembered and if we provide it too late, it will not be of use. Further, if we provide this education at all, how do we make it interesting, memorable, engaging, and comprehensible?
Earlier this year I facilitated a 'Visual Law' Project Group intended to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration between UU's Law students and Illustration/Animation students around the topic of Public Legal Education. Inspired by the work of Margaret Hagan at Stanford who for many years has used visual materials as a teaching tool for her law students, the group developed a series of PLE materials for the employment law space. Designed by students, the materials were intended to address a number of different issues and directed at a variety of different audiences.
The first two topics relate to the law in the UK (across the three legal jurisdictions of Northern Ireland, England & Wales and Scotland). The Spookbook material was designed to address an employment law topic the students felt was of particular relevance to young people. The Flexible Working material addressed concerns students identified in respect to their own peer group (e.g. balancing employment with study), but which also addressed needs of other specific population groups (e.g. women balancing employment and family responsibilities). The Tribunal material directly addressed an educational need that we had identified amongst people seeking help from our University Law Clinic and related specifically to processes in Northern Ireland.
The students worked hard to produce materials within a short time frame and undertook this work as an extra-curricular activity. They focused on conveying messages that were clear and simple, and on providing a creative framework for these messages that would attract attention and be remembered by the audience. The students were gracious enough to agree to open licence this material, meaning it can be re-used freely, and you're welcome to help it find a home.
More information about Margaret's work and her Open Law Lab can be found here