Exploring UK medical and social work students’ legal literacy: comparisons, contrasts and implications

Authors


Michael Preston-Shoot
Faculty of Health and Social Sciences
University of Bedfordshire
Park Square, Luton LU1 3JU, UK
E-mail: michael.preston-shoot@beds.ac.uk

Abstract

To ensure acceptable practice standards both doctors and social workers should draw on relevant legal rules when reaching professional judgements concerning, for instance, children requiring protection, people with severe mental distress and adults at risk, information sharing, consent to intervention and service user involvement in their care and treatment. Many practitioners use the law to maintain high standards of professionalism. However, research has uncovered limited awareness of legal rules and poor standards of health and social care. Academic benchmarks and practice requirements for health and social care professions centrally position legal knowledge for secure decision-making. Model curricula exist. However, the outcomes of the taught curriculum on students’ confidence in their legal knowledge and skills have been relatively overlooked. This article introduces the concept of legal literacy, a distillation of knowledge, understanding, skills and values that enables practitioners to connect relevant legal rules with their professional practice, to appreciate the roles and duties of other practitioners and to communicate effectively across organisational boundaries. It presents the outcomes for a 2006–2009 study of 1154 UK medical and 638 social work students of their law learning for practice, response rates of 46% and 68%. Significant differences were found between medical and social work students’ attitudes towards the law, and in their self-ratings of legal knowledge and skills. Confidence levels were low and anxiety high, especially among medical students, although law teaching had some positive outcomes on knowledge and skill development. Social work and medical students associated different themes with the law, the latter especially foregrounding ethics, negligence and liability, which could affect inter-professional working. Students are not fully prepared for legally literate practice, with a consequent need to review the time allocated for, and the content of law learning and the subsequent availability of continuing professional development.

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