Public understanding of law

Last night I sat down with the family to watch the new BBC quiz ‘Insert Name Here’, which I can highly recommend. One of the guests was Alice Roberts, whom some will know as a presenter of a number of science documentaries; she is also the Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham.

Straight after that we watched ‘Stargazing Live’ with those two excellent science communicators Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox. Browsing the iPlayer- or Amazon Prime, or Netflix, or YouTube- we could easily have filled our week with science.

Not so much law. Police procedurals– absolutely. Drama featuring lawyers- no problem. But accessible discussion of how the law affects us all, featuring practitioners and academics from the field- perhaps with a celebrity added in- not so much. Why might that be an issue and what can be done about it?

On Twitter our esteemed colleague Professor Julian Webb noted that the public understanding of law is as important to us all as is the public understanding of science. (1) An understanding of how laws are made is valuable in assessing those laws and the policies which give rise to them. It can also be a corrective to apathy. (2)

Julian called for collaboration between academics and practitioners in developing the public understanding of law (3) This is something I mentioned in my LLM thesis (4), drawing on the work of William Twining. It can be argued that many universities already do some form of public understanding of law work via their clinics. This work, whilst admirable, only covers such aspects of law as the clinics cover and only reaches their clients.

Universities could develop lecture programmes, develop their outreach with schools and workplaces, and as Julian noted reach out to the profession to develop collaborative work. This would be socially beneficial, and would also help both parties demonstrate their value to their communities.

A beginning might be found in the creation of a chair – or several chairs- in the Public Understanding of Law. This is an idea I kicked around with a few colleagues (including Julian.) If funding could be found then this person or people could begin working on how the talent, knowledge and experience of the legal and academic professions could be brought to bear on the challenge of making law as accessible and exciting as science.(5)

(1) https://twitter.com/julianinoz/status/687076208287199232

(2) Of course, you can understand and rail against🙂

(3) https://twitter.com/julianinoz/status/687075452142391296 , https://twitter.com/julianinoz/status/687075877302042624

(4) http://shura.shu.ac.uk/10826/

(5) Insert ‘send all the lawyers into space’ jokes here…

Public understanding of law

New Year, New?…

What to do , to read about, to write about this year?

With the SRA and BSB working on their post-LETR education plans, there’s certainly enough there. Will a thousand clichés bloom in the SRA garden of many paths? Will the BSB resolve the thorny issue of just exactly what a degree is worth? Will CILEX quietly move build their own new features?

And behind all this, will LSA 2007 be reviewed? Replaced? Repealed?

There’s also the (proposed) changes in HE, and the effect this will have on university law schools? Will there be more private providers to take advantage of changes both in legal education and HE provision? How will university law schools position themselves, and will we see a divide between a liberal and an employability driven  response?

In terms of legal publishing, open access and open law remain interesting. Lively Twitter discussion of reform / review of the US Bluebook citation standards is but one part of that. Should all standards be open- as OSCOLA is? Why should you have to buy- or someone buy for you- the Bluebook in order to be able to cite in the approved manner?

Open law is also crucial, as previously discussed, to public understanding of law and public legal education. Free access to primary materials is a big part of that, but what of secondary materials such as commentary? Open access publishing comes in here, making such work available.

So, I guess I’ll be writing about some of that! I will try (honest I will…) to work some of it up into an article. I’d like to move on to a PhD, but there’s money- or rather, there isn’t… Still, onwards! And a good 2016 to you all.

 

New Year, New?…

Classification, or “there’s a name for it”

“And names make all the difference in the world.” (i)

Classification- how very librarian, eh? Well, yes, but the classification of law is something which has exercised the minds of legal academics as well.

When thinking about making legal information accessible, how can we classify / organise the information?

We could try to identify particular types of legal interaction or relationship- Obligations, Crimes- and then subdivide from there. Justinian time, so to speak. Such an approach underlies  legal academic taxonomies of law.

 

It also features in library classifications. For example the Dewey Decimal System has divisions for Contract, Tort etc as part of a wider class on Private law. DDC also incorporates a model in which law is classified according to what we might call ‘themes’- trade law, welfare law, jurisprudence etc. It also adds in features such as classification by form so we get classes like’dictionaries of law of X’, and by country so you can have ‘law of contract in country A.’

Both approaches tend to treat law as a thing under study, amenable to neat lines and clear classes. DDC does allow for some flexibility in application, but like any formal system depends either on knowledge of the system or assistance in using it. Neither an academic classification nor a library form seem best suited to classifying law in support of access to legal information, depending as they do on specialised knowledge and / or assistance.

An alternative approach is to organise information according to legal issue. This was the approach taken by the LAMS CCS scheme for advice sites (ii) LAMS CCS was designed to be used on sites which would be used by members of the public seeking legal advice, and so in its structure and language aimed to be as issue specific and jargon free as possible.

Such a scheme is an important element of access to legal information, alongside open access to information and the provision of IT infrastructure and training; if it’s hard to understand the structure of a site, it’s hard to use it.

That is not to say that there is no place for systems such as DDC, or Moys, or academic taxonomies. These can be used alongside ‘homebrew’ systems, providing a complementary structure and allowing for different forms of searching, and for interoperability. Classification could take on the role of translator, perhaps, enabling professionals and lay people to share in the construction and use of legal information systems. Taxonomy, taxonoyou, taxonoeveryone…. (iii)

(i) ‘Give me back my name’ – Talking Heads, from the album Little Creatures

(ii) The LAMS CCS – a Classification Scheme for Legal and Advice Websites

Jones, Martin. Legal Information Management 10.1 (Mar 2010): 10-12. Jones notes the the jargon heavy nature of existing schemes was a factor in the decision to create a new scheme

(iii) A riff there on Eddie Izzard’s ‘blasphemy, blas for you’ line

Classification, or “there’s a name for it”

Top down, bottom up

Short and sweet today!

Previous posts have dealt with the opening up of legal information and understanding through the work of law schools and legal publishers. This is very much a ‘top down’ approach, dependant on the ability and will of these organisations to take part in making legal information and understanding available.

How could a more ‘bottom up,’ community based approach work? Looking at the work of colleagues in the Radical Librarian Collective, I thought of:-

Gathering expertise- brining together people with knowledge and the willingness to share it

Building capacity – using that expertise to educate and train others who can build networks in their own area

Creating / using tools-sharing technical knowledge, creating tools to share information, making use of existing systems (such as the www.legislation.gov.uk API (i) )

Please do add your own thoughts in the comments (ii)

 

(i) Thanks to Paul Magrath of the ICLR for his piece in the BIALL newsletter covering the API

(ii) Of course all of this is within the context of accepting the socio-legal system as is; some of you may want to detail how you can organise for transition to a new one😉

Top down, bottom up

Latinisms

Wait, come back! This is a post about the role of the law school and law publishers in pro bono work in the area of legal information and public legal education. It features two Latinisms, the other being ad hoc.

I think we do have pro bono work from law schools and publishers, some of which connects with legal information and public legal education provision, but it is ad hoc and could benefit from a more systematic approach.

Legal publishers do provide some information and education for free. The Incorporated Council for Law Reporting provides free case summaries, and through its blog it also provides a form of legal interpretation and analysis.

How much more could publishers do? That’s a question which takes us into wider discussions around Open Access, capitalism and the rentier behaviour of some publishers, the nature of the common law… So perhaps another post.

Right now, realistically in the UK, publishers are doing as much as we might expect in terms of pro bono provision of legal information. It’s ad hoc, at the whims of publishers and given that it is largely hosted online subject to the access problems discussed in my previous post.

A systematic answer to provision of primary legal information lies with government and improvements to services such as the online statute book, and with the courts in terms of the development of services such as the production of commentary for key decisions as seen on the Supreme Court site.

Related to this is a need for a range of accessible dissemination channels, for example by reversing cuts in public libraries and investing in online provision there and through developing other sites for public access to online materials, such as sites in schools.

In terms of opening access, institutions with law schools could- as some have- negotiate access to law databases for members of the public. (Publishers could offer this for free or low cost via public libraries also…) Libraries within such institutions could be given support in providing assistance with the use of these databases- time for staff to do drop-ins, hiring staff to do the same…

What of law schools? Certainly they do pro bono work- law clinics being the best known example. It could be that as a side-effect of such work, public understanding of law is improved, but that is definitionally ad hoc and limited.

Could- should?– law schools themselves do more? I argued in my thesis that they can and should. By extending their work into pro bono public legal education law schools would demonstrate wider relevance, open up the law to a wider audience, and begin to lessen their dependence on what Twining called ‘primary school’ education of future lawyers.

Law schools could work with local schools, colleges, and workplaces to develop and deliver education in the law.(i) That could mean creating materials, holding open lecture series, being involved in school visits… All of this likely does happen, but could happen in a more co-ordinated and targeted fashion. The ‘pro bono law school’ would complement the pro bono publishers – which includes government and judiciary sites- in making legal material accessible and understood.

A wider Public Understanding of Law approach could be taken(ii), bringing together law schools, the legal professions, law firms, the judiciary, and government. Professors of the Public Understanding of Law could be appointed, and programs developed around them. This would be  a major undertaking, but certainly not ad hoc and very much pro bono.(iii)

Notes

(i) The idea of the law school working on public legal education as part of its role as am element of the legal system was discussed by William Twining- see for example  “Developments in legal education : beyond the primary school model” [1991] 2 Legal Education Review 35; “Thinking about law schools: Rutland reviewed” [1998] Journal of Law and Society 25 (1) 1

(ii) I have discussed such an idea on Twitter with law professors John Flood and Julian Webb, and Tom Laidlaw of Lexis. The big issue is funding – I would be wary of legal publishers providing the funding, and more in support of collaborative funding by HEIs and perhaps law firms.

(iii) OK, some people would need to be paid…

 

 

Latinisms

“What is enough?”- access to legal information

Sarah Glassmeyer and I were discussing her study of online legal information in the USA. I asked whether the complexity of law itself was one of the main barriers to access, to which she replied

‘yeah. That’s definitely an aspect and part of my thought that I need to lower expectations. Asking myself “what’s enough?” ‘

Which led me to think about that question- what is ‘enough’, what would it be reasonable to expect from a system of access to legal information? And as I considered this I was led to think about more general issues of access to information, public legal information, and public legal education. Here are my initial thoughts… for more background see the paper Sarah and I co-wrote.

In a system based on the rule of law, knowledge of the law is very important. Given that total knowledge is beyond us all, in reality this translates into the ability to find out what the law is as it applies to particular situations. How can members of the public achieve this? How can they get hold of reports of cases, details of statutes, and interpretations of the law? What could we do to ensure ‘enough’ information is available.

A common answer is ‘put it all online’- or indeed ‘isn’t it all online?’ We can simply put all primary legal materials on servers- all of the cases, the statutes, the regulations…- and people can then find what they need when they need it. It’ll all be accurate and up to date, and people need never leave the comfort of their own home / favourite coffee shop.

In the UK primary materials are readily available online, through sites such as www.legislation.gov.uk and www.bailii.org. There are some sites offering interpretation / guidance, such as those put together by charities. So, problem solved?

Not quite. In no particular order, the issues are…

1) Access and skills

We cannot blithely assume that all people have ready- or indeed any– access to the internet. (i) A related problem is that for many people their local public library was a place to get online and with many closing, this form of access has been lost, along with the loss of acces to print resources and expertise in the use of materials.

And even where there is access, there is an issue with the ability to use the internet. As reported at http://theinformed.org.uk/2015/11/digital-divide/ 20% of adults lack basic online skills. This is not a matter of not understanding legal information – to which we will return- but an issue with how to make use of any online information systems.

This is not simply a generational issue. We often hear talk of ‘digital natives’ and many assume that ‘the young’ have an uncomplicated relationship with the internet. This idea has several problems – terminology for one, simple inaccuracy for another- and does not capture the complexity of people’s experience of the internet.(ii) Facility with some aspects of using online systems does not translate into facility with all aspects.

These problems of access to online sources and the ability to use online sources represent one barrier to an online system as a sufficient answer to making ‘enough’ material available. The former could be solved by investment in affordable broadband provision; the latter through a programme of education and training, starting with schools.(iii)

2) The nature of legal materials

The complexity of law is the issue here. Government in the UK has found it hard to provide a comprehensive and up to date database of statutes.(iv) The online statute book has come a long way but is still not completely up to date and requires quite a bit of work to make sense of any changes. Case law is provided through site such as www.judiciary.gov.uk and BAILII (www.bailii.org) provides extensive coverage- but in both cases we have the transcripts, with no indication as to the importance of a case or any clue as to its precedential value. What we have is the ‘raw’ material of the law. Which leads us to…

3) Understanding the law

We are most of use lay people when it comes to the law. Mere access to the ‘raw’ materials of the law does not translate to understanding of the law as it applies to a person’s particular issue.

There are many guidance sites which offer some form of interpretation / advice, and many services such as Citizen’s Advice and trade unions which can offer some help. For many people, however, such services are not accessible- some for the problems outlined in section 1, others because of cuts to such services, and of course some are membership only benefits.

4) What then is ‘enough’?

‘Enough’ is not just about being comprehensive in terms of the information available.To be ‘enough’ a system would need to provide ready access to legal information and also to guidance on the law. A print based system would look like a ‘digest’ or encyclopaedia, held in public libraries or open access law school libraries, with access to trained staff for advice and guidance.

What would an online ‘enough’ system need to work?

Provision- primary legal material being made available, in updated form, online

Access– improved access to the internet. Not necessarily about speed, just simple access.

Training– providing training in computing skills, and then more specifically the use of the internet. Could extend to critical information literacy. (v)

Education– education in making use of and understanding legal materials

For me this raises the question, “what is the role of legal publishers and law schools in such a system?,” which that will  be the subject of my next post.

Notes

(i) See http://theinformed.org.uk/tag/digital-divide// for more in depth discussions and figures.

(ii) See  http://www.oclc.org/research/themes/user-studies/vandr.html and http://www.donnalanclos.com/?p=221 for a more detailed discussion of the issues and an alternative approach based on the idea of ‘Visitors and Residents’

(iii) See http://theinformed.org.uk/2015/11/digital-divide/ for a discussion of the ‘Digital Eagles’ programme and the problems with using private companies to meet the need for education and training for use of the internet

(iv) See https://www.gov.uk/guidance/good-law for details of the work being done in this area

(v) On which see http://ojs.lboro.ac.uk/ojs/index.php/JIL/article/view/LLC-V7-I2-2013-2 

“What is enough?”- access to legal information

Starting points- legal education / legal publishing

My LLM thesis can be found here :- http://shura.shu.ac.uk/10826It covers the history of legal education in England with a focus on the place and nature of the law degree. It places legal education in the context of professionalism and the effect of neoliberalism and the professions and on higher education. It argues that a renewed professionalism within law and higher education could form a base for a critique of and resistance to neoliberalism, whilst allowing for a range of law degrees and non-degree routes to practice.

The work was in part inspired by the commissioning and report of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR.) The Solicitor Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board are still working out their responses to the LETR, although it seems likely that both will withdraw from detailed regulation of law degrees, switching to broad competency standards. Interestingly where the SRA appears to be moving to a wider range of routes to qualification, the BSB seems to be sticking to an insistence on degree based standards, even going so far as to consult on whether a minimum 2:1 should be required – see http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/2076/1/cepler_working_paper_11_2015.pdf for a critique by Steven Vaughan of this position.

Once the consultations are done and final details of new systems are in place I’ll post about them. I’ll also post about any consultation responses.

The paper on open / free law which I co-wrote with Sarah Glassmeyer can be found here- http://shura.shu.ac.uk/8241/  In this paper Sarah and I cover some of the history of legal publishing, particularly case law and legislation. We discuss the current availability of case law and statutes to the public, and discuss how it could be improved.

Sarah is currently working on a major review of US open law- see http://www.sarahglassmeyer.com/notebook/- and I will be posting on similar topics here, with an England and Wales focus. I’m particularly interested in case law availability, and the availability of interpretive and educational materials for the general public.

If there is a connection between legal education and legal publishing it lies in the role of the legal profession – including legal academics- in making material accessible in its widest sense. I’ll cover that issue too.

Starting points- legal education / legal publishing