Law in Contemporary Society

Legal Education in Secondary Schools

-- The first draft of this paper was prepared by YejinJennyHan - 27 Feb 2009 The revision is prepared by PetefromOz - 16 Apr 2009


Knowledge of the law is essential in modern day living: it enables people to use the legal system more capably, to modify their behavior so that they do not unwittingly violate the law, and to act with more confidence. Providing legal education in secondary schools will provide a sound starting point to promote understanding of the law within the whole society.

Why knowledge of the law matters

Law intersects with every part of our lives from our family relationships, business relationships (corporate, contract, equity, agency and property law) and consumer purchases (commercial law), through to the wholesale regulation of our society (criminal law and the political system).

Ignorance of the law can be costly, while knowledge can bring opportunities for profit. Good faith ignorance of the law is rarely a valid legal defense, and yet the law places the burden of knowledge on the citizen. That knowledge is costly and often difficult to acquire. This is an equity issue: surely if everyone is subject to the law, then legal knowledge should be accessible to everyone.

The old adage ‘knowledge is power’ is salient in this context. If you do not know the law, you risk breaking the law, and you cannot optimize your business transactions or consumer purchases, protect yourself in legal conflicts or exercise your democratic rights in America’s political system.

Specialization of knowledge

It does not follow that just because some knowledge of the law is useful, that everyone ought to have the same level of knowledge. Modern society relies upon the principle of specialization. Society functions most efficiently when people develop special knowledge and skills in a variety of areas. Each person engages others to perform or assist with tasks outside his or her own specialty.

One might then argue that specialization demands that non-lawyers do not need legal knowledge, as they ought to simply engage lawyers to provide advice or representation. However, there are several flaws with this argument. The first difficulty is that a level of legal knowledge is needed in order to know when a legal issue exists and legal advice or representation would be of value. The capacity to use the legal system stems from an awareness of one’s rights and obligations. The second difficulty is that legal services are priced beyond the means of most people for all but the most significant of legal issues. Accordingly, there are many legal issues that ordinary people must, by necessity, deal with without the assistance of a lawyer.

This paper contends that basic legal knowledge is necessary to participate in society. Hence, everyone ought to be taught enough about the law affecting them so as to know (i) how to avoid breaking the law, (ii) how and when to seek assistance in optimizing consumer or business transactions, (iii) how to seek assistance to defend themselves, and (iv) how to participate in America’s political system.

Why teach law at secondary school?

If one accepts the premise that everyone should have a basic knowledge of the law, it is necessary to then consider how that knowledge should best be imparted and received. As the concept of ‘a basic level of legal education’ is relatively nebulous, it is impossible to categorically state the point at which it ought to be received. However, it is reasonable to contend that primary (elementary) education should include foundational concepts from criminal law, consumer protection law and civics. Without some simple legal concepts children’s participation in society and further learning will be limited. Tertiary education, whether university, technical college or workplace-based, should include specific knowledge relevant to every person’s (proposed) vocational undertaking. Everything else within the scope of the ‘basic legal knowledge’ (especially how to find a suitable lawyer) should be taught at secondary school. High school children are at a developmental stage when a basic legal knowledge will begin to (i) make sense and (ii) be useful.

One qualification should be stated: the teaching must be taught critically. Creativity and innovation can be stunted by rote learning law.


Skeptics may contend that law is so complex and profound that children will not understand it. However, history demonstrates that educators have simplified complex ideas to suit the level of children’s understanding. Today secondary schools teach subjects such as physics and biology that historically were the province of only elite academics and scientists. With the right pedagogical approach, complex legal issues can be taught to high school students. The intent is not to teach children to be lawyers, but rather to teach them to be sufficiently aware of their rights so as to enable them to avoid legal difficulties where possible, and otherwise to obtain appropriate assistance.

In the same way that teaching colleges have produced teachers competent to teach mathematics and biology, teachers ought to be trained to teach legal and political education. Indeed, this has been the case for over 15 years in Western Australia. In the meantime, while teachers’ colleges prepare new teachers, schools can start by hiring law school students as teachers. By undertaking this function law students will not only be forced to better absorb foundational legal principles, but will also develop their oral presentation skills.


The law is pervasive throughout modern society. Ignorance of the law poses many risks and undermines one’s ability to participate in society. Conversely, a basic knowledge of the law is empowering. It is not sufficient to say that lawyers can be engaged as and when required. This is so not simply because lawyers cost too much, but also because some knowledge of legal issues and personal rights and responsibilities is necessary to identify when professional assistance is required.

Legal education in secondary schools will empower individuals to not only make effective use of the legal system and comply with the law, as well as offer the compass they need in order to navigate through legal challenges.

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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:27:52 - IanSullivan
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