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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.

Purpose of this systematic review

The purpose of the systematic review was to locate, assess and synthesise the best available research evidence on the effectiveness of CLE. The Law and Justice Foundation of NSW has previously argued that in the context of evaluating legal assistance services, effectiveness means demonstrating a causal link between an activity and an outcome — that is, the activity directly increases the likelihood that a positive outcome will occur and that it does so independently of the effects of other concurrent factors which may also potentially have this effect (Digiusto 2012, pp. 1-2). Therefore, to demonstrate the effectiveness of CLE, research studies would need to demonstrate that CLE causes a change in participants’ knowledge, skills and motivation to act, and/or ideally, it causes a change in their actual behaviour.

Specifically, we investigated what research evidence there was available that showed CLE initiatives:

• improved participants’ knowledge about the law, legal issues, legal processes or sources of assistance

• increased participants’ skills and motivation to take action to resolve their legal issues (including seeking the right sources of assistance)

• changed participants’ behaviour e.g. to take action to address their legal problem

• improved participant outcomes

• were cost effective.

It should be noted that there may be a range of aspects other than effectiveness that can be useful to evaluate for an activity such as CLE – for example, it can also be useful to evaluate why it succeeded or how well it was received by clients (see Digiusto 2012, p.1). While these are very valuable questions, they are beyond the scope of this particular review.