Archive for February, 2007

Formal professional development for PLEI?

February 28, 2007

Does PLEI need more formal professional development opportunities? Aside from workshops and seminars offered each year at the Public Legal Education Association of Canada’s annual conference, PLE practitioners in Canada (and the rest of the world, for that matter) are more or less on their own to build the appropriate skills and knowledge for educating the public about the law.

If the PLE movement was to boost its professional development opportunities, what should it do? Does PLEI need a degree or certificate program in the universities? Does it need a licensing process, complete with regulatory body?

The only thing I’ve ever found that addresses these questions is a 2006 article by Aisha Topsakal (formerly of Éducaloi) and Barbara Cuber, Thinking Outside the Law Faculty: A Call for a Specialized PLE Program [LINK]; this article appears in the first, and so far only, issue of Focus Justice, the magazine of the McGill Legal Information Clinic.

Topsakal and Cuber propose a PLE program that would be based out of the law faculty, but have a multidisciplinary scope. Specifically, the program they envision would focus on five areas beyond the standard law school curriculum:

  1. Educational theory and techniques
  2. Effective communication skills
  3. Organizational and human resource management
  4. Psychology and social work
  5. Sociological and historical understanding

The authors see this program not just as a way for law students interested in PLE to prepare themselves for it, but also as a force for guiding law schools toward a more interdisciplinary approach and a more cooperative and friendly public posture. They even point out that sensitivity to the issues that PLE faces “can benefit all future lawyers by nourishing client-centered professional relationships built on mutual understanding.”

I know from field interviews that some of you would base any specialized PLE program out of the education faculty, not the law school. Others of you, I expect, would add library sciences to the list of multidisciplinary focuses (the authors do note that their list is “non-exhaustive”). Still others don’t see much of a need for a formal PLE program in the first place. Indeed, it’s not even clear how many PLE professionals in Canada chose their job and how many simply stumbled into it.

Is PLEI a truly viable career move? If so, how should people be preparing themselves for it?

When PLE hurts

February 27, 2007

I recently learned about a community legal education campaign for certain minority groups in the U.S. that a major state civil rights organization mounted several years ago. The campaign, a “know your rights” effort, involved materials and workshops that encouraged individuals in these communities to steadfastly assert their rights to police and other authorities. The civil rights group, however, was not prepared to offer legal support to most of those who followed its advice and ended up arrested or harassed for standing on their rights. The result was frustration and increased danger for the minority community; public legal education had led the community into a raw conflict with police.

Several Canadian PLEI organizations that I’ve talked to explicitly recognize that education and information can hurt rather help when it’s limited or not backed up by professional, emergency legal services. Some groups will think twice—or not at all—about producing PLE for audiences or on topics where there is little hope for people to get free legal help or remedy problems on their own. This attitude, as the story from the States illustrates, can go a long way to avoiding frustration and even serious harm. But it also means that latent legal needs stay latent. Those latent needs are then left to private attorneys, funders, and governments to identify on their own, but there’s a decent chance that those groups too will remain ignorant of them.

What role does PLEI have in simply cultivating legal needs—in building community recognition of rights that might ultimately require the attention of better-funded and more politically powerful champions? And, whatever role PLEI has in that, when should it ethically back off in order to prevent the hurt that can come from knowing just a little, but not enough?

Borrowing from public health (again): an evaluation framework

February 23, 2007

Evaluation is an issue I have encountered almost everywhere in my research travels to public legal education organizations in Canada. Not almost everywhere, in fact—it’s been an issue everywhere I’ve been. Funders want programs evaluated, and organizations want to ensure that their programming is having an impact, but nobody I’ve talked to is convinced that they’ve solved the riddles of PLEI evaluation. There has been plenty of research on evaluating PLEI (see, for instance, Justice Canada’s Evaluation of Public Legal Education and Information: An Annotated Bibliography [296 KB PDF]). But as far as I know nobody has yet proposed a full evaluation framework.

Recently I ran across this document from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Framework for Program Evaluation in Public Health (1999) [516 KB PDF]. What’s notable about this evaluation framework is that it hopes to be something that providers can use themselves, without always relying on evaluation professionals: “The emphasis is on practical, ongoing evaluation strategies that involve all program stakeholders, not just evaluation experts.”

A short overview of the framework is linked here, and the whole paper in PDF is here.

Viewing PLEI as a tiered system

February 22, 2007

In the old Justice Canada International Review of Public Legal Education and Information (1986) [not available online], authors Jayewardene and Pelpola suggest that there are three possible “systems” of public legal education:

  • An “operational” system, where law is written in technical language but instruments of law like contracts and court forms must be written in plain and communicative ways.
  • A “two-tier” system, where law is in legalese but the public and private sector produce educational and informational materials to explain the law to the general public.
  • A “one-tier” system, where the law is written in plain language and easily accessed by everyone.

The authors say that the United States already has an operational system, because of its many “plain language” laws that require things like insurance policies and consumer contracts to be in simple language. But won’t that approach will leave out whole swaths of law—like civil rights—that won’t come up in the legal papers most people encounter? And wouldn’t it limit the preventive potential of PLE and fail unless people actually read legal documents?

What we really have in the U.S. and Canada, I think, is a two-tier system, with intricate and dully written law explained by a host of PLE providers, including the government itself, nonprofits, bar associations, and for-profit outfits. If you believe that jargon and specialized vocabularies can produce precision, then the two-tier approach gains you some advantages: the law itself can remain uncorrupted by the ambiguities of common talk. The PLE providers in this system, like the lawyers in it also, are really just bilingual interpreters operating to communicate between the law and the people.

What about a one-tier system? Read the rest of this entry »

The [core stuff] of PLEI programming

February 21, 2007

While grinding through the transcription of over 70 interviews from my eastern tour, I am also struggling with two questions about PLEI programming in Canada:

1. Can we boil down the core programs of PLEI organizations into a short list of standard approaches?

2. If so, what’s a good title for that list? (The mainstays of PLEI programming? The staples? The pillars?)

The first question is the big one, because assembling that list will go a long way to describing exactly what Canadian PLEI organizations do. Indeed, when I explain the Canadian network of PLEI providers to interested groups in the US, their first question is almost always, “so, how do they do it?” A list of core programming methods will also help in speculating whether there is anything important lurking in the blindspots of the field.

Others have made their own lists of PLEI basics. Notable are:

  • Jayewardene & Pelpola (Justice Canada), International Review of Public Legal Education and Information (1986) [not available online], who boil it down to eight things: (1) pamphlets and booklets, (2) radio and TV programs, (3) lectures and seminars, (4) adult education courses, (5) telephone hotlines, (6) do-it-yourself kits, (7) do-it-yourself courses, and (8) law-related education in schools.
  • Moliner (Justice Canada), 1997 Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) Review (1997) [304 KB PDF], who also identifies eight areas: (1) print and audio-visual materials, (2) live legal info hotlines, (3) taped legal info hotlines, (4) speakers and workshops, (5) school-based curricula, (6) “electronic” access to legal info like ACJNet, (7) interactive (online) learning modules, and (8) popular theatre.
  • Jackson et al. (BC PLEI Working Group), PLEI Taxonomy Project Document: Version 2.2 (2006) [224 KB PDF], who divide everything up into just four categories of their “format facet”: (1) learning (courses and workshops), (2) multimedia, (3) online, and (4) print.

I’d like your comments on my stab. Here’s how I’ve come to see it, having now been to almost all the sole-purpose PLEI providers in the country:

  1. Plain language materials (things you can hold in your hand, like print publications and videos; everybody does these)
  2. Live, in-person events (the gamut of workshops, classes, lectures, and so on)
  3. Online (mainly websites, nowadays)
  4. Telephone (staffed and unstaffed hotlines)
  5. Schools (anything made specifically for youth in school)

I’ve left a couple notable areas out: mass media (radio, TV, newspaper) and theatre. Neither is used widely enough to merit including them on this list of “core stuff.” Plus, there are some things that fall outside the list (like essay and poster contests), but those are also done so rarely that they definitely do not constitute the staples of Canadian PLEI.

The women of PLEI

February 20, 2007

During my eastern site visits, one topic that came up in several interviews was the disproportionate number of women on PLEI organization staffs. Because in this research I often find that I’m the only male in the room, I knew that this was a fact, but I thought I would take a stab at determining just how disproportionate gender really is in Canadian PLEI.

Here’s a first sketch of gender representation in funded PLEI projects in the provinces. I’ve tallied the number of men and women on the staffs of the ten PLEI organizations that receive annual core funding support from Justice Canada. From that tally, I calculated the overall percentages of men and women (1) total, (2) employed to do mainly PLEI program work, and (3) serving as executive director in those organizations. Here are those percentages charted:

Note a couple things. First, the chart is a draft—I compiled the numbers quickly, from staff rosters on hand and my own recollection; I might get more rigorous about this later. Second, I’m not (yet) going to speculate why there are so many more women providing PLEI or what that means for the field; but you are welcome (and encouraged) to, in the comments.

Dispatch from the end of the road: Toronto site visits

February 19, 2007

Last week, spent in Toronto, ended my five-week PLE research tour of eastern Canada. Ontario, and Toronto in particular, is a very special place for public legal education in Canada. Not only is Ontario home to the unique and famous community legal clinic system, and not only are each of those clinics mandated to provide public legal education and engage in community development, but one of those clinics is devoted entirely to initiating and supporting PLE projects in the province.

That clinic, Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), is one of the most well-staffed sole-purpose PLEI organizations in Canada, employing multiple full-time staff lawyers and plain language editors. CLEO’s core service is the production and distribution of plain language publications, but it also maintains CLEONet (a huge clearinghouse website of Ontario PLE materials from many organizations) and has just launched a program to provide PLE publications and audio in six languages other than English and French (the languages that CLEO has previously focused on). Operating since 1974 (and previously called the Toronto Community Law Program), CLEO is also one of the oldest independent PLE organizations in Canada.

Important too, though, is the substantial PLEI work being done by community legal clinics throughout Ontario. “Specialty” clinics, such as Justice for Children and Youth and the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, produce their own PLEI materials and send their staff attorneys into Ontario communities to deliver workshops and classes on legal issues. “General” clinics, which serve a specified geographic community, also spend significant percentages (as much as 15%) of staff time on PLE activities.

Also based in Toronto is the staff of the Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN), a very young PLE—or rather “justice education”—provider. OJEN, formed in 2002 at the initiation of Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry and partially modeled on the Law Courts Education Society of BC, works with regional committees of lawyers, judges, educators, and other community representatives to build understanding of the justice system. At the core of OJEN’s programming is its Courtrooms and Classrooms program, which facilitates learning and exchange between schools and the courts.

Even this lengthy description doesn’t exhaust all I saw in Toronto, though. Public legal education seems to have earned a lasting and constituent place in the justice and legal services environment of Ontario.

Dispatch from the road: Montréal site visit and Ottawa interviews

February 11, 2007

I began this week in Montréal, QC, with a two-day visit to Éducaloi. Québec’s only sole-purpose PLEI organization, Éducaloi serves a province of over 7.5 million people—82% Francophone—and where the official language is French. Éducaloi is also the youngest provincial sole-purpose PLEI organization in Canada (founded in 1999–2000). At the core of the organization’s programming is its gigantic website, which provides constantly-updated plain-language legal information on a broad range of topics. Beyond the website, Éducaloi works on a number of special projects, including plain language publications. youth camps and schools programming, and an interesting project to replicate the parliamentary committee process as a way for school-aged students to democratically modify their schools’ student codes. Éducaloi is also notable for its special attention to branding and image, and for the success it has had in attracting media attention.

For the second half of the week, I was in Ottawa, ON. With the exception of a new, law school-based project called the Ontario Public Legal Education Initiative and a lone Ottawa-based staff member of the Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN), there is no sole-purpose PLEI presence here. Most of my time, thus, has been spent talking with those involved in PLEI funding and policy work in the federal government and with those involved in Canadian PLEI who have ended up in Ottawa for one reason or another.

Dispatch from the road: whirlwind Charlottetown and Fredericton site visits

February 4, 2007

This past week has seen me visit Charlottetown, PE, and Fredericton, NB. The Community Legal Information Association of PEI in Charlottetown offers a number of standard PLE programs, including a legal information line, lawyer referral service, plain language publications, and legal classes and workshops, and has a significant focus on community development and close collaboration with others in the small and tightly-knit province it serves. In Charlottetown I also stumbled upon a related and exciting organization, the Cooper Institute, which coordinates highly interactive, low-income-friendly grassroots training academies—with PLE components—that develop community capacity for bringing social policy changes.

In Fredericton, I spent most of my time visiting the Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick. For a small PLE organization, PLEIS-NB produces an amazing number of plain language print and video materials and over the years has developed a focus on family violence issues. PLEIS also offers workshops in schools and for the general public, provides a family law information line, and manages a parenting education program for recently separated parents.

Both PLEIS (pronounced like “please”) and CLIA enjoy free (but tiny) office space provided in government office buildings by their respective provincial governments, and both operate in provinces with comparatively limited legal aid.