Community legal education (CLE) and community legal Information (CLI) are integral parts of legal assistance services in Australia and have been for many years. The function was written into legislation establishing legal aid commissions in Australia in the 1970s (e.g. Legal Aid Commission Act 1979 (NSW), Legal Aid Act 1978 (VIC)) and CLEI has been a key strategy of community legal centres (CLCs) since their inception (Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria 2011).
Indeed, the genesis of CLEI during this period of community-based activism and access to justice reforms is critical to ways in which CLEI is understood and practiced today. CLEI was seen then – and often is now – as a tool to empower individuals to identify, understand and enforce their legal rights, both in specific situations (such as arrest) and as empowered and engaged legal citizens more generally (Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria 2011). To provide one example, one community legal centre describes the role of its CLE work as:
Today, the 2015 National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services (NPALAS) provides the policy and funding framework for some Commonwealth funded legal services in Australia. 3 The 2015 NPALAS aims to facilitate five outcomes, including that ‘legal assistance services help empower people to understand and assert their legal rights and responsibilities and to address, or prevent legal problems’ (Council of Australian Governments (COAG) 2015, p. 3). Information and CLE are two of the envisaged ‘legal assistance services’ to realise NPALAS outcomes, and they are perhaps the strategies most likely to be utilised to help people understand and assert their legal rights and responsibilities (COAG 2015, p. 6).
As an empowerment tool and prevention strategy, CLEI is sometimes ascribed great, indeed, transformative expectations: improved legal capability,4 improved access to justice, and prevention of escalating legal need. While such broadly expressed goals are valuable statements of intent, they do not identify outcomes that can be monitored and evaluated.
This is particularly so given that CLEI strategies are typically relatively short and generic interventions – ranging from face-to-face workshops and presentations, to interactive web-based resources and tools, to step-by-step guides, brochures and other publications, with a broad spectrum of intended users – and provide generic information rather than legal advice based on a client’s individual circumstances.
Such broad expectations have at least two risks. One is the political temptation to rely on relatively simple and relatively inexpensive strategies to improve access to justice, without taking into account the barriers people face in successfully resolving their legal issues.
The second is that insufficient consideration is given to exactly how, for what, and when different CLEI strategies can most effectively and efficiently engage with the varying needs and capabilities of users to successfully address and resolve legal problems, and where the limits of these strategies lie.
Relevant here is the paucity of evidence demonstrating what CLEI ‘works’: for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost. In their systematic review of the effectiveness of CLE, Wilczynski, Karras and Forell (2014) found limited research evidence demonstrating the impact of CLE. This was not a finding that CLEI is ineffective per se, but rather that there was limited empirical evidence to show whether or not CLEI strategies had achieved intended outcomes. Broadly expressed, the ‘great expectations’ placed on CLEI contribute to the challenge of planning and evaluating CLEI strategies, if for no other reason that it is difficult to specify and measure what ‘success’ is.
In yet other work we have noted how deficits in personal legal capability mean that there are limits on what unbundled forms of legal assistance such as CLEI are likely to achieve. Better recognising these limits is also essential for identifying for whom and under what conditions CLEI strategies are demonstrated to ‘work’ (see Pleasence et al. 2014; McDonald, Forell, Wei & Williams 2014).