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Over many decades, an increasing range of legal rights, responsibilities and protections have come to apply in the spheres of education, employment, children and families, health, housing, welfare benefits, consumer goods and services, and our environment. Most people think that they know their rights, but studies show that citizens appear to poorly understand the ‘law thick’ world in which they live. This impacts on the ability of citizens to identify and resolve legal problems. They may not act appropriately when a problem arises, they may not recognize a problem as being legal in nature, and they may not take action to protect themselves against legal risks if they don’t understand the law. The impact of lack of knowledge is heightened by a sharp reduction in public funding of civil legal services (legal aid) which means fewer people are eligible for legal aid, and more people are required to resolve their legal problems without access to free legal assistance.

In a recent study, Pascoe Pleasence and Nigel Balmer from UCL and myself used data from the Civil and Social Justice Panel Survey to explore how well people understand their legal rights. Participants were asked 6 fact-based questions for each of three legal hypotheticals covering housing, employment and consumer law.

So what separated those who had a good understanding of their rights from those who had little or no understanding?

Age was associated with legal knowledge across all three scenarios. The oldest respondents consistently obtained relatively low scores, while middle-aged respondents generally performed relatively well. Youngest respondents scored significantly lower than those in other age groups in relation to the housing scenario, but performed relatively well in relation to the other scenarios.

In the case of both the housing and consumer scenarios, legal professionals scored higher than others and, more subtly, knowledge appeared to increase with professional seniority.

Educational qualifications were found to be significantly associated with legal knowledge in the case of only one scenario, the rented housing scenario. Here, a lack of qualifications was associated with significantly higher scores. There was little evidence of qualifications, or lack thereof, relating to success in answering the employment or consumer scenario questions.

Those at risk of an employment problem (those in employment) were associated with an increase in knowledge. The same was not true of those living in rented housing.

Those who disagreed that, in general, problems should be resolved within the family or community, rather than by using lawyers or courts, were found to score significantly higher in the housing scenario than those whose attitude to problem resolution was neutral.

This study highlights a substantial public legal knowledge deficit across England and Wales.

Overall, respondents answered only 59% of our fact-based scenario questions correctly. They did slightly better than they would have done if they had simply guessed the answers.

While modest levels of public understanding were evident in respect of rented housing (71% correct) and employment law (66% correct), profound ignorance was observed in the case of consumer law.

On average, consumer scenario respondents answered just 34% of 5 consumer law questions correctly; a score substantially worse than would be expected by chance! Those who reported a consumer problem in the survey and who claimed to mostly or completely know their rights, did not do any better than those who did not purport to know their rights.

The profound mismatch between people’s actual and professed understanding of the law in the case of consumer law is likely strongly influenced by the practice norms of retailers. Respondents’ beliefs about consumer law, while wrong, are also in line with retail practice, where cancellations of orders for late (or even on-time) delivery are routinely accepted, refunds are consistently provided for ‘mistake’ purchases and defective products are ordinarily replaced with new ones.

This is not unproblematic. A view that people need not know the law because retail practice (norms) afford consumers greater protection than the law, does not translate to other areas of law and can lead people to take on far greater risk than they would want, or be able, to deal with.

Knowledge of legal rights and responsibilities provides a framework that informs expectations and enables the management of risk in social and economic interactions. Public ignorance of law is ubiquitous, can act to undermine efforts to navigate the legal framework of everyday life, impacts on the outcome of legal issues and imposes burdens on legal institutions. It strikes at law’s efficacy, efficiency and legitimacy. It is a matter of practical and constitutional significance — and our findings suggest there is much that needs to be done to address it.

The full paper published in the Modern Law Review is available online. Also available is a copy of a recent presentation I gave on public knowledge of the law.