Name change

May 30, 2007

If you’re paying attention, you’ve already noticed that the title of the blog has changed: from “PLE / Canada / Fulbright” to “PLE Theory and Practice.” Also, the “About” blurb on the left side has been updated.

These are both portents of a new era for this blog.


Thank you.

May 30, 2007

This post will be my last as a regular contributor to this blog. I will continue to write on the blog, but only occasionally from now on.

The future of the blog is shaky, but more promising each day. Lois Gander, PLE legend and University of Alberta professor, will take interim control. Within the next two weeks, I hope to work with Lois to recruit a small team of contributors and editors. The emails and votes on the “fate of the blog” poll have made it clear that there’s a strong interest in keeping this thing going.

I don’t have any substantive content for today (though I would like to quickly link to another blog’s entry yesterday complimenting the Éducaloi and CLEO websites). Rather, I just want to thank everyone. The main reason I’ve been living in Canada for the last nine months was to focus full-time on public legal education. That work has been so tremendously productive—thanks almost entirely to the help and support of all of you here—that I could never have expected how much I accomplished in such a short time.

But the research is ultimately no more than half of it. I’ve also been here to understand this country, to see it from coast to coast, and to exchange experiences, culture, and dreams between the U.S. and Canada. For doing that, the people I’ve met and worked with—especially my main readership here—could not be beat. In every place I went, I was shown nothing less than phenomenal hospitality. You have made my time here unforgettable and enriched my life and career like no other nine months could have.

Thank you.

PLEI: the national movement

May 29, 2007

What is the state of the national PLEI movement? Is it strong? Is it healthy?

When the field of PLEI in Canada first began to take shape in the 1970s, PLEI truly was a movement—the leaders and the literature in the field often called it that. A grassroots, almost revolutionary spirit jumps out at you from the PLE artifacts from this period. Ideas and innovative practices spread across the country seemingly by magic, and with no help from the Internet or even regular national conferences.

As the eighties arrived, the movement grew more mature but also more robust. The Canadian Law Information Council (CLIC) (later renamed as the Canadian Legal Information Centre) assumed a clearinghouse and coordinating role, establishing a staffed secretariat devoted exclusively to PLEI. The federal Department of Justice, which had been doing and funding PLEI in roundabout ways since 1972, took on a massive role in 1984 by becoming the impetus and pocketbook behind “completing the network”—ensuring at least one sole-purpose PLEI provider in every province and territory.

The 1990s, though, brought with them the closing of CLIC and a major national recession. The major PLEI groups in Canada not only scrambled for money (in some cases fighting among themselves over short-term project-based funding), but now also lacked a staffed national organization committed to doing the research and coordination necessary to fuel the field’s development. Though the Public Legal Education Association of Canada (PLEAC), an unstaffed national networking association for providers, had been operating since 1987, neither PLEAC nor the federal government has since taken over the tasks the CLIC’s dissolution left undelegated.

Many of those who weathered the 1990s working for a PLE organization point to the recessions as the main cause for PLEI’s hiccups during that time—hiccups that the field may not yet have completely recovered from. But, I wonder: what about all of the things CLIC was doing? Does the field need to find a way to get these done today, or else risk another crisis?

Here is a list, from CLIC’s 1978-1980 annual report, of the things it undertook to provide for the national PLEI movement:

  • a support network capable of providing materials and information on PLEI projects
  • a mechanism to identify and review available PLEI materials and to identify gaps in the literature which need to be filled and to act as a catalyst to ensure that the gaps are filled
  • development, support and follow-up on a series of conferences covering the broad PLEI field
  • identification of the need for additional research into the impact of PLEI programs and the preparation of professionals interested in PLEI activities
  • a manual to identify sources of funds for PLEI projects and to assist applicants and funders in their roles
  • identification of the legal information needs of special interest groups at the national level
  • an annotated bibliography covering audio-visual and print materials for the non-lawyer

How many of those things are not getting done today? Which of them must be done if the field is going to grow?

More standards for PLE

May 28, 2007

The lists of standards for PLE and best practices for PLE websites have quickly become some of the most popular content on this blog. Regardless whether that’s because they are helpful or because they’re controversial, I obviously should post some more.

Here are some PLE-related guidelines from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in the States. The LSC is the quasi-federal, major funder of civil legal aid in the U.S. Since the 1990s, LSC has released “performance criteria” for its grantees. Here’s some of what the 2007 edition of the Performance Criteria [397 KB PDF] has to say about PLE activities:

    • The organization compiles and uses materials that others have already produced.
    • It selects a clearly defined audience for PLE activity, and one that is consistent with program goals and desired outcomes.
    • It uses the most appropriate delivery methods for the subject matter, the audience, and available resources.
    • It communicates in understandable ways that are culturally and linguistically relevant the the audience.
    • It periodically evaluates its PLE activities and compares the costs for the results with the costs of other ways of getting the same results.
    • It tries to assess actual outcomes.
    • Are your PLE activity’s objectives clear and reasonable?
    • Is the program creative in its use of print, audiovisual media, or other available technology?
    • Did you consider the target audience when you selected your delivery methods?
    • Are you evaluating the program with regard to its costs?
    • Do you collaborate with other providers and social services agencies for writing and distribution of PLE?

These LSC criteria were drafted with an eye towards the ABA’s Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid, which I summarized a couple weeks ago. Are these criteria more or less helpful than those standards? Do either of them have relevance to Canadian sole-purpose PLE providers?

Law foundations and PLE

May 25, 2007

In the aggregate, law foundations are probably the largest funders of PLE organizations in Canada. Along with Justice Canada, the provincial law foundations are the primary entities funding to sole-purpose PLE organizations in Canada. In more than a few cases—especially in the west—law foundations are the source of 50% or more of a sole-purpose organization’s revenue.

And because Justice Canada’s core funding commitment for sole-purpose PLE ($70,000 a year to each provincially designated organization, in most cases) has not increased since the late 1980s, law foundations become a more important influence on Canadian PLE with each passing year.

Although PLE organizations benefit tremendously from the law foundations—nearly all of which have “legal education” of some kind explicitly in their legislative funding mandate—there are two glaring difficulties with PLE and law foundations:

  1. Law foundations’ revenue, coming primarily from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, is tied extremely closely to interest rates and provincial economic conditions.
  2. Although law foundations talk to each other, as funders they are often islands and do not collaborate with Justice Canada or other funders on PLE issues.

Difficulty #1 has proved all too real a drawback for several PLE organizations, who have seen their core funding plummet in leaner economic years. Difficulty #2 has been a matter of concern in several PLE reports, including Marie Moliner’s 1997 Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) Review for Justice Canada [311 KB PDF]. Moliner noted that contact between the law foundations and Justice Canada was “sporadic” and recommended that Justice Canada do something about that.

Has Canadian sole-purpose PLE come to rely too heavily on law foundations for core financial support? If so, is there any realistic alternative for organizations who want to adjust their funding picture? And even if the heavy reliance is inevitable, should PLEAC or PLE organizations individually push law foundations to interact more with Justice Canada and other major PLE funders?

And one bonus question: do law foundations need to clarify—for themselves, if no one else—exactly what “legal education” means in their mandates?

Vote! and decide the fate of this blog

May 24, 2007

As many of you know, I will soon be leaving Canada to return to Idaho and begin full-time work as a legal aid staff attorney. I’ve received lots of encouragement and appreciation for this blog, but after the beginning of June, I cannot commit to sustaining it.

One possibility for this blog’s future would be to hand off the reins to a designated successor. A similar option would be to assemble a collective of several authors, including myself, who would all contribute content. Or, of course, I could simply let the blog go dark.

I’d like to get your feedback. I am going to try using the poll below to do it. Please don’t be shy! Click on the statement you most agree with. Your responses will directly determine the future of this blog. Comments are welcome, too.

POLL: What Fate For This Blog?

1. The blog was great for a while, but it need not continue.
2. It would be nice if the blog continued in some way.
3. This blog is very important! You must keep it going!
4. I did not find the blog helpful.

What is PLE?: stepping into the definition quagmire

May 23, 2007

“Efforts to define PLE with any precision have largely failed.” Statements like that one (from Lois Gander) are the most significant results of the thirty odd year quest for a definition of the term “public legal education” in Canada.

That Gander quote is from 2003. Fifteen years earlier, the Canadian Law Information Council (CLIC) said the same thing: “Attempts to define PLE have not been entirely satisfactory.” Going back even earlier still, folks were just as frustrated: “Even the people in the field have failed to reach agreement on many of the terms used to describe the field as a whole.” And this is not just a Canadian phenomenon—in a recent “scoping report” on PLE from the UK, the authors noted: “The need for a definition of PLE has been stressed. There is demand for clarity regarding what it might comprise.”

These statements belie, however, that on an everyday basis, people are having no trouble understanding roughly what PLE is. Isn’t it, quite straightforwardly, just “education” about “legal” topics for the “public”?

The problem, though, as Gander and others have pointed out, is that nobody can agree just what “education” should include, just what counts as a “legal” topic and what doesn’t, or just who the “public” is exactly. And even if you get beyond the individual words, the whole phrase—“public legal education”—can be found referring to any of a cluster of things:

  • the materials, like booklets, DVDs, and websites, that are created to educate the public about law (as in “I’m going down to the rack at the library to pick up some of that public legal education”)
  • any activities, from a conversation with a bartender to a episode of Law and Order to a class on wills and estates, that informs people about law and the legal system (as in “the public legal education going on among friends over coffee might be the most common”)
  • all the people and organizations who are doing the activities and producing the materials that educate people about the law (as in “Canadian public legal education is a mostly female world”)
  • the concept that it is important to build a public that understands law and the legal system (as in “public legal education is either related to access to justice or a part of it”)

Definitions of PLE have run into trouble because both (1) of taking controversially broad or limited views of “public,” “legal,” or “education,” and (2) of leaning too much to either the “concept” sense of PLE or the “materials, activities, and people” sense of PLE.

But in the end, PLE doesn’t have it much worse off than any other field. After all, what is “medicine”? Or “marketing”? Or, how about this description of the problems that the field of adult education has had defining itself:

Those trying to describe adult education as a field of education activity often have been frustrated. Lyman Bryson said, “[Adult education] has always been carried on by a wide variety of agencies, for a variety of purposes, and with many different kinds of people. For this reason, some critics have called it formeless and without direction.”

More than fifty years after Bryson wrote those words, adult education continues to be called, at least by some critics, formless and without direction.

Still, PLE, unlike medicine, marketing, and even adult education, has not yet secured a long-term place in the minds of the public, the policies of the government, and the budgets of its funders. Rallying around a single definition could be an important step in securing that place. Does PLE, the field, need to cut out its linguistic bickering so that it can agree on a common definition of itself? Or, perhaps, is it that the term itself is bad?

PLE in context: who are its cousins?

May 22, 2007

Public legal education providers are not the only organizations working tirelessly to educate people on important topics that impact their daily lives. PLEI has a host of “cousins”—fields of adult and youth education, such as public health education, that share special similarities.

A short list of some of PLE’s closest cousins might include:

  • Health education: probably the most advanced cousin, and a field I have looked to several times on this blog. This area gets called both “public health education” and “community health education,” and is closely related to “health promotion.” Providers network through the Canadian Public Health Association and the Society for Public Health Education in the U.S.
  • Consumer and financial education: a giant field seemingly occupied by few sole-purpose nonprofit providers. The federal government, instead, has taken a major role here. The Canadian Foundation for Economic Education may be a central networking point in this field—I can’t tell.
  • Environmental education: at times in PLE’s history, environmental education has been a partner and a model. This field is gigantic and growing, and independent nonprofit providers network through the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM).
  • Human rights education: maybe PLE’s closest cousin, major players in this rapidly developing field are Amnesty International and Equitas.
  • Civic, citizenship, and democracy education: another very close cousin to PLE, and one that often blends in with modern Canadian PLE programming. The Citizenship Education Research Network is one group that might be networking players in this area.

There are others, as well—peace education and public science education, for example. What ties all of them together are related issues (all tackle subjects that are social, political, and everyday), similar strategies, and common problems. All of these fields experience the tangled benefits and frustrations that arise out of the interplay of government and nonprofit players, limited funding, and pervasive misinformation.

What can PLE learn from these other fields? What can PLEAC learn from its counterparts in these other movements? Where are the points of potential partnership between PLE providers and this universe of other, related providers?

Ten best practices for PLE websites

May 18, 2007

My recent post of highlights from the American Bar Association’s standards for PLEI in legal aid has quickly become one of the most visited posts I’ve made here. To follow that up, I will highlight today another ABA document: its 2003 Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers [126 KB PDF].

I suspect that some Canadian PLE providers are more advanced in their web delivery strategies, and that these best practices will seem obvious. Nevertheless, here they are, summarized:

  1. Contact information, in the form of at least a mailing address (and preferably an email address and telephone number), should be listed clearly on the website and ideally on every page.
  2. Dates on substantive content, indicating the time of preparation or last review, should be included—and automated dating systems should not be used.
  3. Likewise, jurisdiction information, noting for what geographic areas the information is accurate, ought to be included.
  4. Sites should also feature a conspicuous notice that legal information is not legal advice.
  5. There should be links to other sites and resources that might also help users.
  6. Where possible and appropriate, substantive content should be accompanied by citations and links to relevant case law and legislation.
  7. Referrals, in the form of information on how and where to get additional help and advice, should be provided.
  8. Permission for any content used from other sources and sites should be obtained.
  9. The terms and conditions of site use ought to be conspicuous.
  10. And a clear and conspicuous privacy statement should be included as well.

How helpful and complete is this list? Is this even useful to Canadian PLE providers, or could PLEAC members benefit from a more advanced set of best practices?


May 17, 2007

There have been a lot of definitions of PLE proposed over the years, but perhaps even more rationales. The question “why PLE?” has a diverse set of answers, and the answers that any person or organization seize upon to justify their work seems to have a noticeable impact on the programs and activities they do.

At a broad, national, or international level, it might be useful to build a comprehensive list of PLE rationales. A full list would be useful not just so that others can pick from among them as they form mission statements and write proposals and advocacy papers—it could also to help us get a sense of the surprisingly wide scope of what public legal education is about.

For this entry, I’ve worked up the start of a list of PLE rationales, compiled from other lists from across the years. The list quickly got so long and unwieldy that I’ve tried to group the rationales into categories—you can tell me how well I’ve done:

PLE serves to fulfill some basic presumptions and prerequisites of legal and societal systems

  • The individual
    • The law affects everybody and in everyday ways; thus, knowledge of the law and its processes is a basic life skill.
    • The law presumes that everyone knows the law, so people must have a fair opportunity to actually know it.
    • Even to simply identify legal problems and participate in necessary legal processes, an individual needs a basic understanding of the law and legal processes.
  • The legal system
    • The legal system requires informed and involved citizenry if it is to be a system that is responsive to the needs, concerns and priorities of the nation.
    • The legal system needs legally literate citizens in order to maintain public confidence in the system.
    • The legal system also needs legally literate citizens if it is to operate fairly.
  • The democratic system of governance
    • Participation in the democratic process requires basic legal competence

PLE reduces problems and friction in the legal system and society

Read the rest of this entry »