Plenet on Legal capability

Legal capability is defined as what people need to be and do in order to deal effectively with law related issues. These capabilities draw on three areas of ability: knowledge, skills and attitudes, emphasising that capability needs to go beyond knowledge of the law, to encompass skills like the ability to communicate plus attitudes like confidence and determination.

Read the discussion paper:  Legal capability (220 KB)

This discussion paper by Martin Jones at Plenet outlines the origins of the capability approach and relates these to the abilities people need in order to deal effectively with law-related issues. He concludes that a two-step approach is needed for the development of legal capability – a foundation level and a problem level.

Foundation level

Martin puts forward the hypothesis that there is a necessary foundation level of capabilities – a bare minimum – which would equip everyone to:

  • recognise the role of law in everyday situations;
  • know where to find out more and get help;
  • communicate effectively and confidently, and
  • be an active citizen.

The foundation level of capability is about basic and practical knowledge and skills that can help us all deal with the common problems of everyday life. It equips people to avoid and respond to problems and provides the basis upon which a response can be built. This response and the learning it involves takes people to a higher level of capability – the problem level.

Problem level

The ‘problem level’ is the main focus of much PLE work, particularly the information provision undertaken by the advice and legal sector and by government. The bulk of law related information on websites and in paper form is geared to delivering information at the point at which a problem has been recognised, providing information on the law, and signposting to sources of further help.


The concept of legal capability is explicitly about empowerment, looking at the abilities people need in order to deal effectively with law-related issues. The focus is on the user and what they need in order to manage the law-related problems of everyday life.

The concept of legal capability broadens our approach to the law beyond legal literacy and emphasises the skills and attitudes needed to use the law. This brings significant benefits to citizens and also breaks down barriers to educators, community development staff, youth workers, and others who can contribute to the development of legal capability.

Martin highlights the need for further research to identify gaps in capability particularly where low levels of capability put particular groups at risk. The data would be invaluable in the further development of PLE including work to set a baseline of current legal capability.

Read Plenet’s Legal capability (220 KB) discussion paper.

Published: 6 October 2016

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