The People’s Law School: history and programming

October 26, 2006

This is the first of a series of organizational histories that I’ll be posting here throughout the next several months. From November 6–28, I’ll be in Vancouver, BC, to visit the major PLEI projects there: the People’s Law School, the Law Courts Education Society, and the BC Legal Services Society’s legal information department. In preparation for those visits, I’ll be posting brief histories of each organization.

    Organization History

Most people point to the People’s Law School in British Columbia as the very first sole-purpose public legal education organization in Canada. In every year since its 1972 founding, the People’s Law School has focused on providing free law classes and plain-language publications to the British Columbian public, offering programs province-wide and in many languages.

People’s Law School initial funding, from the 1972 Federal Government Opporunities for Youth grant catalog (click to enlarge)
People’s Law School initial Opportunities for Youth funding, 1972

The People’s Law School got its start in May 1972 with $11,650 (about $57,000 in 2006 dollars) from the Canadian federal government’s “Opportunities for Youth” (OFY) program. Founder Diana Davidson, a second-year University of British Columbia law student at the time, got the idea for a community-based public legal education project when she learned about a “People’s Law School” operating in the San Francisco Bay area. With the OFY money and help from about seven initial volunteers, the group began operations out of Davidson’s basement laundry room as the “Vancouver People’s Law School” (VPLS). The project’s purpose, as Davidson articulated it at the beginning, was to instruct Vancouverites not only about “what the law is” but also on how to influence the law and “recognize the danger of those bills that seek to curtail or eliminate fundamental rights.”

In its first programming effort, VPLS organized 35 free law classes in Vancouver during the fall of 1972. The classes were wildly successful, drawing nearly 3,500 people. Many of those who came clamored for free publications as well, and soon the project was producing handouts and, by 1974, commercially printing its first plain-language law booklet, Women and the Law. Under the leadership of president-founder Davidson and executive director Patti Pearcey, VPLS grew rapidly during the rest of the 1970s: adding a video production and distribution program in 1973, launching radio and television broadcasts in 1974, offering free law classes province-wide and multilingually in 1975, assembling a long-term funding base (anchored by the Law Foundation of BC) by 1976, syndicating a regular newspaper column by 1977, and beginning schools programming in 1978. In 1981, the organization was serving tens of thousands of people in places all over B.C., and it dropped “Vancouver” from its name to become simply “The People’s Law School” (PLS).

A 1989 People’s Law School intermediary training (click to enlarge)
People’s Law School intermediary training, 1989

The 1981 renaming was just the beginning of major changes for PLS during the 1980s. In 1983, a leadership battle led to the ouster of founder Davidson from the presidency and transformed the organization’s board of directors from a small, managing board to a larger one with strategic representation from the bar and community. At about the same time, a severe recession was hitting B.C. hard and funding cutbacks forced PLS to pare its staff and programming down to their cores. The project again changed its name, this time to the “Public Legal Education Society” in hopes that dropping the socialist connotations of “The People’s Law School” could help attract big funding from the private-sector (the name did not last, it confused people familiar with the organization, and the corporate funders never materialized). As the recession subsided, though, PLS gained back strength on its own, hiring PLS veteran Gordon Hardy as executive director in 1986 and scoring spacious, downtown, $1-a-year office space from the City of Vancouver in 1987.

The 1990s are notable for another major recession and the complete program review that PLS undertook as funding cuts set in. This review prompted an overhaul of PLS’s longest-running program, free law classes, and a shift of the whole organization towards focus on BCers “most in need.” For the English-language free law classes, this meant a sudden drop in attendance as staff learned to deliver PLE to a new audience with a different attitude than the “motivated, educated and articulate people” it had learned to respond to. The revamped programs, including a “Provincial Innovations Program” intended to re-imagine effective PLE delivery for rural communities, have brought the People’s Law School into an era of mature constancy.

People’s Law School funding: 1992/93 - 2004/05

Today, PLS’s free law class program is still running, now nearly 35 years old and organized as speaker requests from community groups across B.C. The publications program has been running for nearly as long, and last year PLS reached over 90,000 people with free, plain-language publications on the law. Through its Cultural Minorities Program and Provincial Innovations Program, PLS works to ensure it is reaching diverse audiences with its substantive programming. And a Justice Theatre program, originally conceived as just a one-time effort for the Pacific National Exhibition in 1985, has grown to become an extensive schools program, reaching over 58,000 B.C. elementary and secondary school students in 2004–2005.

Programming History
(Active programs in bold)

    Free Law Classes: 1972–present

  • Vancouver area: 1972–present
  • B.C.-wide: 1975–present
  • Multilingual: 1975–present
  • Prisons: 1980s
    Plain-language publications: 1973–present

  • Multilingual: 1981–present
    Referral: 1973–present
    Videos: 1973–1990s
    Radio: 1974–present

  • English: 1974–1980s, 1990s
  • Multilingual: 1979–present
    Television: 1974–1990s

  • Video broadcasts: 1974–1980s
  • Live show: 1978–1980s
  • Multilingual: 1979–1980s
    Audio Tapes: 1975–1980s

  • Multilingual: 1980s
    Newspapers: 1977–present

  • English: 1977–1986
  • Multilingual: 1979–present

  • ESL programming: 1980s–present
  • Children’s Summer Law Program: 1982–present
  • Justice Theatre school tours: 1997–present
    Intermediary training: 1970s–present
    Speakers bureau: 1970s–present
    Paralegal training: 1970s
    Theatre: 1980s–present

  • Justice Theatre school tours: 1997–present
    Website: 1998–present

2 Responses to “The People’s Law School: history and programming”

  1. […] This is the second in a series of histories of major public legal education organizations in Canada. The first looked at the People’s Law School; today, I cover the other sole-purpose PLE organization in BC, the Law Courts Education Society. […]

  2. Gordon Hardy Says:

    Hi Ritchie,

    Can I still reach you through your blog? I have a question or two to ask you about your entry on the People’s Law School.

    It’s been a long time. Hope you are doing well,


    Gordon Hardy

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