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"Legal" solution not always appropriate, says Consumer Focus

14 December 2012

Improving ordinary people’s legal capability is not just about building knowledge of legal rights, but requires life skills and personal resilience that can be applied in a legal context.

That is one of the key findings in a new report by Consumer Focus Scotland (CFS), entitled "Facing Up to Legal Problems: Towards a preventative approach to addressing disputes and their impact on individuals and society".

Based on research carried out for CFS by Carole Millar Research, commissioned in partnership with the Scottish Government and Scottish Legal Aid Board, the report emphasises that problems "should not be thought of simply as ‘legal’ problems, and of concern only to the justice system". A wide variety of sectors, it says, can contribute to helping people with law-related issues and the impact on their lives.

When faced with a civil justice problem, not all consumers recognise they have a problem, or that it has a potential legal remedy or that there are sources of help available, instead of seeking advice or help from elsewhere. And they may not even manage to resolve their problem, but still decide it is not worth the hassle to pursue, because they regard other aspects of their lives as more important.

A further "key insight" the report claims is that although many problems have a potential solution in law, few people are likely to pursue this. "Many of the problems experienced did not, in essence, concern a legal dispute, but involved people struggling with life in complex modern societies", it finds. "Underlying some civil justice problems were social problems, general issues relating to how people behave towards one another as citizens, or failures in organisations’ processes."

The report concludes that the justice system alone, even if functioning perfectly, is unlikely to be able to address the full needs of people experiencing civil justice problem, and a "person-centred" approach should be adopted. "In helping people to avoid or resolve their civil justice problems, there is a need for the Scottish Government, and other organisations within the civil justice system, to focus on the person and their circumstances rather than just on the ‘legal’ problem itself."

The report states that many people do not have the life skills to deal with such issues, which require a measure of confidence and personal resilience.

For the right focus to happen, it recommends that the remit of the Scottish Government's "Making Justice Work" project on Enabling Access to Justice should be extended to work with others outwith the justice system on underlying causes of civil justice problems, such as distress.

Interventions to build legal capability, developed as part of the Making Justice Work programme, should be centred on a "life stages" or "life events" model, seeking to build on the contact that certain organisations have with consumers at such life stages or events.

Further, interventions to develop "legal capability" should not simply focus on building knowledge of rights and responsibilities, but also on building skills and confidence to address the problem, and improving attitudes. "Resources should focus on the needs of the person and not simply their problem", it adds.



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