The need for basic legal education for children as a school discipline | Sunday Observer

The need for basic legal education for children as a school discipline

12 December, 2021

The Latin doctrine ‘ignorantia legis neminem excusat’ or “ignorance of the law excuses no one” is an extremely valuable legal principle accepted in almost all civilised countries, including Sri Lanka. Any person who is unaware of the law in a country cannot escape liability for violating that law by being ignorant or oblivious of its contents.

The foundation of the principle is that a person charged by law with an offense, criminal or civil, cannot claim innocence by merely arguing the fact that he or she was unaware of the pertinent law. Even such persons are genuinely and truthfully uninformed of the law in question, they cannot avoid liability.

Law is a discipline that can be mastered only by studying in a formal law school. Nevertheless, every citizen of a country must be aware of basic principles of law prevailing in that country. Perhaps from a young age, legal education relevant to the day-today-life of everyone must be taught to the entire citizenry of a country. The best and the easiest way to achieve this are to include the subject of fundamental law in the school curriculum.

In Sri Lanka, when children turn eighteen years of age, they legally become adults. This means that they are responsible for their lives and the decisions made by them in life. Hence it is important to educate children on time to prepare them to handle the situations they will likely face in life later on.

Improving legal literacy among young people can have a great effect on the prevention of crimes. Due to multiple reasons, including easy access to violent information, rapid escalation of criminal acts, particularly drug abuse, among the youth of the country seems to be a gruesome burden to society. When a person reaches the point of deliberately disobeying the law, knowingly or unknowingly, it indicates a system failure.

Most often, people know when they defy the law. However, what they are usually unaware of is the punishment for such defiance. Hence, the best way to prevent criminal acts is to educate the citizenry on crimes, laws against crimes, and more emphatically, the related punishments when convicted.

Criminal acts

The criminal acts are related to social settings and experiences, the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and unawareness or ignorance of the laws of the country. In order to mitigate this situation, the most effective task is to carry out a legal education process from childhood. Although the overall planning is done to promote legal education, as typically happens in Sri Lanka, the implementation has not taken place as yet.

It is the general opinion of society that students should learn about the legal process of the country in basic terms. Also, it is important to learn the skills of legal reasoning that can help them immensely in adult life later.

School education is meant to provide children with the necessary tools to become productive adults. They gain academic knowledge by learning varied subjects during school education. However, regrettably, in the Sri Lankan education system, the law has never been a subject despite it being the exceedingly important ingredient to become law-abiding citizens in their adult lives.

Teaching law to young children can provide them with reasoning skills that will be not only important throughout their lives but also in their advanced studies. The legal thinking practised from a young age drives them to act more rationally and confront challenges effectively and competently. Further, legal education can provide the tools to organise facts to arrive at reasonable decisions as adults.

Just as in many other complex disciplines, legal reasoning is not always black or white. Hence, the teaching must be done extremely carefully to apply general rules to a situation in everyday life. Particularly, to prevent possible criminal acts in adult lives, an idea on the severity of the sentences in general terms must be taught to children.

Legal reasoning is practised as students consider the perspectives of others, learn to appreciate those views, and accept that there are always two sides to a situation is learnt by learning legal principles. By being exposed to the other’s viewpoints, students get used to a sense of intellectual honesty.

Legal fraternity

However, the question is whether the principles of basic laws can be taught to young children? The answer of experts in both the education sector and the legal fraternity is emphatic affirmation and that it can be done relatively easily if the curriculum is properly planned.

In today’s complex social environment, if someone closely scrutinises, one can find that children confront many law-related experiences. Therefore, a credible and simplified version of the law is required at least from the secondary level education.

Although legal education is not yet a part of the school curriculum in the Sri Lankan education system, most of the time teachers informally make attempts to make the students aware of very basic principles, particularly personal discipline and behaviour. However, such an informal approach to juvenile legal education is not adequate to meet the challenges faced by society anymore.

Carrying out legal education on basic principles of prevailing law in the country is an important national requirement to prevent crimes. Juvenile legal education in the early lives of people may produce a rational, decent, and law-abiding populace.

Simple legal literacy improves the knowledge about society and also helps build just societies. As mentioned, by making children aware of the punishments related to offenses, the fear of committing crimes can be established in mind to reduce the rise of crimes. Similar to the other subjects in the school curriculum, the law needs to be a discipline taught in primary, middle, and high school for the students to become more productive adults in a more democratic society.

In an extremely optimistic, constructive, and encouraging move, the Ministry of Justice combined with the Ministry of Education and the Child Protection Authority has established a paper to include legal education in the Sri Lankan school education system.

According to Justice Ministry sources, essentially useful subjects were included in the proposals that seemingly assist children to understand and appreciate the importance of law, from the tender ages.

According to relevant sources, the disciplines introduced will be on step by step basis. Commencing at grade six, the subjects will comprise life and law at grade six, children’s rights in grade seven, environment and law in grade eight, social security in grade nine, and other important areas from grade ten. According to the same sources, all textbooks also have been already prepared.

This move, when implemented, unquestionably will come into extreme praise of the entire nation. No doubt that Sri Lankan society will have an undivided agreement on the matter. Understanding of legal aspects of crimes, civil offences, and relevant punishments will control possible nefarious activities of students, especially adolescents at the high school level.

Illegal drug mafia

For example, as in many other countries, the illegal drug mafia makes constant attempts to target the student population from a young age to draw into abuse. They usually deploy creative methods to drag youth into the use of banned substances. A young child considers only instant pleasure by using these drugs at the time of consuming them. They are oblivious to the severe punishments awaiting them if they get trapped. However, if such a child is aware of the possible punishments, the chance of evading drug abuse can be very high.

Similarly, there are many more offences such as sex abuse, theft, gambling, and other despicable acts manipulated by interested parties that can be effectively and successfully controlled if the legal viewpoint such crimes is inculcated in students.

Therefore, the introduction of basic law is not a concept any more, but a dire need. The rapidity of societal changes, mainly due to technological advancements such as the internet, requires more direction to keep the escalating crimes in check. Introducing fundamental legal education in the school curriculum is one of the most needed requirements for Sri Lanka today.