A healthy society needs its citizens to know and understand the law - and we need more lawyers to kick-start this process, writes Gary Slapper

There is an episode of the US television programme, 'The Simpsons', in which the loveable delinquent Bart expresses an ambition to become a lawyer.

'That's good, son,' says Lionel Hutz, Springfield's attorney-at-law.

'If there's one thing America needs now, it's more lawyers'.

'Imagine,' Mr Hutz cautions us, 'what the world would be like without lawyers.' The cartoon then washes into dream imagery of a joyful community in which people of all ages and races dance in a circle to the refain 'I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony'.

There is an element of truth in this.

In Utopia, Thomas More, the eminent 16th-century lawyer and Lord Chancellor, depicted a society in which the law was all so simple that it could be interpreted and applied by anyone, with the result that there was no need for lawyers.

A tempting vista, at least for some contemporary clients.

In truth, the malice behind most lawyer-hate is a misdirected lay resentment of the laws that are being enforced or the social order from which they spring.

This was recognised by John Stuart Mill, who observed in 1869 that 'the laws of most countries are far worse than the people who execute them'.

The extent and influence of law has never been greater.

Law governs every aspect of what we do today.

About 35 new public Acts of Parliament are produced every year, thereby releasing thousands of new rules into our world.

The legislative output of Parliament has more than doubled in recent times from 1,175 pages a year in 1971, to 2,581 pages in 1989.

Yet we have a relatively low ratio of lawyers per citizen - 1:505 citizens, by contrast, for example, with Canada, which has 1:462.

One argument against a society with lots of lawyers is that it breeds an infectious and baleful 'compensation culture'.

However, contrary to fears of a tornado of law suits when 'no win, no fee' arrangements, the new civil procedure rules, and accident claim companies were first introduced in the 1990s, there has not been an explosion of litigation.

Conversely, there has been a fall.

We are not obsessively suing one another into oblivion.

According to 'Judicial Statistics', published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, 153,624 writs and originating summonses were issued in 1995 in the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court.

That represented a 2% drop on the previous year's figures.

There have been further reductions in each subsequent year, with a drop of 14% last year bringing the 2002 figure to just 18,624.

There is a similar story in the county courts, where the claims issued in 2002 were 6% fewer than in 2001.

The general drop in cases going through court probably means that more cases are being settled out of court.

There has not been any precipitous fall in client-solicitor consultations, nor has there been a fall in consultations at citizens advice bureaux, so people are evidently taking legal advice as before but then litigating many fewer cases all the way to the courts.

That is generally a good phenomenon because rights are legally vindicated in a relatively efficient way.

Objectively, however, the social use of law is weak and at a low level.

Citizens need a much more systematic education in law from school age.

If religious education is patched automatically into school timetables, why not law, rights and responsibilities? Citizenship classes are helpful, but are aiming to achieve something different.

Pervasive knowledge of, and reliance on, law is emblematic of a healthy society but it requires a larger base of legal experts than we currently enjoy.

Gary Slapper is professor of law and director of the law programme at the Open University