When legal rights are not a reality: do individuals know their rights and how can we tell?

J Soc Welf Fam Law. 2013 Mar;35(1):139-160. doi: 10.1080/09649069.2013.774764.


Public knowledge of rights has been the subject of a number of empirical enquiries over the last decade. In England and Wales, knowledge of rights and its relationship with an individual's capacity to 'self-help' and 'self-represent' when faced with a civil justice problem has become the subject of renewed attention following changes to legal aid which, from March 2013, will see the availability of legal advice and representation dramatically reduced. Previous studies focusing on public knowledge of rights in this (and other) jurisdictions have illustrated a lack of knowledge amongst the general population and more specifically, a widespread tendency of individuals to assume that the law aligns with their own moral, ethical or social attitudes. However, many of these studies have also suffered from methodological shortcomings. In attempting to address some of these shortcomings this study uses an open-ended format to ask individuals with one or one or more civil or social justice problems to describe their rights/legal position. We find that whilst an open-ended question approach to exploring knowledge of rights yields insight not acquired by other formats, its utility is constrained by difficulty reconciling articulation and actual knowledge of rights. We discuss the implications of these findings as they relate to the development of future research in the field of family and social welfare law, Public Legal Education (PLE) and access to justice post-March 2013.

Keywords: legal aid, LASPO; methodology; self-help; self-representation.