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Informed Citizens? Knowledge of Rights and the Resolution of Civil Justice Problems



Previous studies have highlighted the paucity of knowledge possessed by people in a number of jurisdictions with regard to specific legal issues and processes, yet what has not been fully understood is the practical impact of this lack of knowledge. This paper looks at how knowledge of rights affects the resolution of civil justice problems. Data were extracted from a large-scale survey of adults’ experience of rights problems throughout England and Wales (10,537 adult respondents). The results demonstrated that most individuals were not aware of their rights at the time the problem occurred (64.8 per cent). Knowledge was shown to be poorest amongst those with mental illness, those without higher qualifications and those renting their homes. Problems where knowledge was poor included clinical negligence, welfare benefits and neighbours issues. Knowledge did not appear to be related to a particular problem-solving strategy but had an impact on the fulfilment of objectives and the obtaining of advice. Our findings depart from existing literature by indicating that knowledge of rights alone is not associated with legal self-sufficiency in terms of a reduced dependence upon legal advice services. We find, however, that individuals, with knowledge of rights, experience better outcomes when they opt to handle their problem alone. Accordingly, the presence or absence of knowledge of rights may be a useful proxy measure of legal advice need and relevant to the process of legal aid rationing. Our findings highlight the role that Public Legal Education (PLE) (both ‘rights-based education’ and ‘just-in-time/self-help’) may play in disposing of less complex problems, while presenting a strong case for the continued availability of free legal advice services. The research is discussed in the context of the recently announced legal aid reforms in England and Wales and their anticipated impact.



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