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The outcomes of community legal education: a systematic review, Justice issues paper 18   

, 2014 Community legal education (CLE) has been conducted in NSW for the last 30 years. It aims to raise awareness among community members about the law and legal processes, and improve their ability to deal with the legal system. But CLE programs and strategies vary widely. So what do we know about the effectiveness of CLE? Researchers Ania Wilczynski, Maria Karras and Suzie Forell from the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales report on a systematic review in this new paper.

The aims of CLE

CLE is a key strategy in the legal assistance sector in Australia and is included as a component of preventative legal services in the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services (Council of Australian Governments 2010, p.4).

In general, the aim of CLE is to educate community members about the law and legal processes in order to assist them to resolve their legal problems most effectively and participate in law reform. However, the goals articulated for different CLE programs and strategies vary considerably, ‘from the very general — for example, awareness raising — to the highly specific — such as equipping users to carry out specific actions to solve a particular problem’ (PLEAS Task Force 2007, p.14).

The Guidelines for the Management of Community Legal Education Practice set out four goals for CLE, which encapsulate the key aims of CLE described in the literature in Australia (Cox 2002) and overseas (Barry et al., 2012). These goals are to:

Raise the awareness of the community of the law and legal processes.

• Increase the ability of the community to understand and critically assess the impact of the law and the legal system on themselves in society generally and in relation to particular sets of circumstances.

• Improve the community’s ability to deal with and use the law and the legal system.

• Create a climate for participating in or influencing the law-making process and for pursuing law reform, through collective action where appropriate. (CCLCG, 2004)

The PLEAS Taskforce in the UK further expands upon the higher level aims of public (or community) legal education as including:

This concept that the ultimate underlying aim of CLE is to produce legally capable and empowered citizens is a key theme in the literature both in Australia (Community Development and Legal Education Working Group (CDLEWG) 2010, p.12−13; Ferrari & Costi 2011, p.2) and overseas (Asian Development Bank 2009, p.9−10; Barry et al. 2012), even if this terminology is not explicitly used. This concept also highlights that CLE is not simply about providing legal information, but also legal education that ‘encourages a critical understanding of the law and the legal system and allows an assessment of its impact or usefulness’ (CDLEWG 2010, p.12). As Balmer et al. (2010, p.7) point out, CLE is:
CLE aims to achieve changes in participants’ awareness, knowledge, understanding of legal rights and legal issues, skills and confidence, and to increase their understanding of how and when they need legal support (PLEAS Task Force 2007, p.9).