Archive for March, 2007

PLE by internet

March 28, 2007

Has Canadian PLE made good use of the Internet? Ever since the emergence and popularization of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the Internet has been a central medium for delivering public legal education. But have PLE organizations made the most of it?

Lois Gander, who has been tutoring me in the ways of PLE, is in the process of revising her 2002 paper, Applications of the Internet for Public Legal Education [204 KB MSWord DOC]. That document strives to catalog the most promising and curious uses of the Internet for PLE: for delivering it, for running the operations of groups that provide it, and for developing the professionals who oversee it.

I’m going to use this post to spotlight some of the newer and innovative uses I’ve seen. Don’t dare take my word for it, though: point out your own examples in the comments!

Again, I know I’ve left good examples out. Please fill the gaps with your comments.

Using the media

March 27, 2007

It’s been a mystery to me why PLE organizations in Canada do not make more use of mass media. Of those few programs that have used the mass media for PLE delivery, almost none leveraged the popularity of mainstream media as a way of educating the public. What I’ve seen, instead, are three types of mass media PLE:

  1. Cultural and minority media placement: programs like the Cultural Minorities Program at the People’s Law School and the new Six Languages Project at CLEO place PLE content in newspapers and on radio stations that target specific minority (and often non-English-speaking) communities.
  2. Public access shows: in the past, PLE organizations from many parts of the country produced instructional TV shows—and sometimes hosted live TV talk shows—for broadcast on public access and educational channels.
  3. Promotion: several PLE organizations issue press releases promoting their programs and organizations. Éducaloi is a notable leader in this area and has attracted significant media coverage.

Even though all three of these mass media strategies may be important, I and others still wonder why PLE organizations have not gone for the heart of the beast. Why not find ways to deliver PLE through the most popular media outlets and programs? To paraphrase what one observer told me: PLE organizations have trouble getting their message across because of all the “background noise” of popular media—there’s a competition for the public’s attention, and PLE organizations just don’t have the resources to compete with Ally McBeal.

But competing directly with Ally McBeal &c. is not the only way. Although producing original content for mainstream media outlets has worked for PLE in the past (consider successful CBC radio shows produced by PLIAN and CLIA, and the wildly popular legal radio spots and TV soap operas done decades ago in Québec), the media is also an intermediary, and it can be educated like one. Here are a couple examples from the American Bar Association:

  • Supreme Court Preview: this is a periodical published monthly during the U.S. Supreme Court’s annual term. It’s targeted at the reporters who cover the Court, and last I heard it was the only external material distributed by the Court’s press office.
  • The Silver Gavel Awards: an annual slate of awards given to mass media creators who get the law right and build public understanding of the justice system.

Both programs are intermediary PLE. Both have an end result, presumably, of improving the accuracy of legal depictions in the mass media.

Are ideas like this on the radar of Canadian PLE programmers?

Advice versus information

March 26, 2007

The line (if there is one) between “legal advice” and “legal information” is a troubling one to some public legal education providers, sole-purpose PLE providers (SPPLE) in Canada in particular. Though most Canadian SPPLE organizations have lawyers or lapsed lawyers on staff, only a few consider themselves engaged in the practice of law, and none confess an intent to provide legal advice. Thus, SPPLE programming—one-on-one programs like legal information hotlines especially—often rests right up against the advice/info line.

Sitting so close to that line has two risks:

  1. Overconfident users: those who use PLE services might not realize that legal information is not enough in their situation, and that they need legal advice or representation.
  2. Unauthorized practice: those who provide PLE could get in trouble for invading the legal profession’s monopoly over legal advice.

The unauthorized practice concern, although it can loom in a staffperson’s mind and has come up again and again as a reason for official tentativeness towards PLE, has not turned out to be a real day-to-day threat to PLE in Canada.* That’s a damn good thing, too, because nobody really knows exactly what “legal advice” is. The advice vs. information issue is one that many folks have tackled (legal scholars, law librarians, bar personnel, court administrators, and self-represented litigant support program task forces, to name the major groups), but that no one has pinned down. A common solution is to offer guidelines to information providers in the form of “what you can do” and “what you can’t do” lists [consider the set of deliverables from the Arizona Supreme Court’s recent study of the issue, discussed on the Self-Help Law ExPress blog [link]].

The overconfident users concern doesn’t come up a lot, although it’s probably the more serious of the two. Maybe the reason that this doesn’t loom in the minds of PLE staff is that many PLE users have no choice but to be overconfident. Legal aid is just not robust enough to offer legal advice to all those who need it but can’t afford it. The extreme interest lately in self-represented litigant support projects suggests that governments and the legal profession might be starting to see “overconfidence” as a solution to unequal justice—a solution that’s cheaper and less controversial than bolstering legal aid.

There aren’t very many sole-purpose PLE organizations in Canada that have advice/info guidelines. Some probably do give out “legal advice” every once in a while—but hardly ever in a way that interferes with the legal profession’s monopoly. Is this issue just a straw man, a red herring, and a mountain made out of a molehill?

* In the United States the story has been a little different, and a couple for-profit PLE outfits have suffered close scrutiny from bar associations [link; link]; plus, a recent Federal Court of Appeals ruling held that the seller of bankruptcy form assembly software was engaged in unauthorized practice [link].

PLE on Wikipedia

March 23, 2007

Wikipedia is a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” This web-based encyclopedia, which the Globe and Mail has called a “glorious social experiment” (and which Wired magazine has called “a repository of knowledge to rival the ancient library of Alexandria”), now has over six million articles in over 250 languages. Until today, there was no article among those six million on PLE, PLEI, plei, community legal education, law-related education, or any of the other fields in our universe.

I have spent the morning putting together a starter of an article on PLE [link]. The first job—defining the term—took me all of the morning (plus the months I’ve spent mulling and attempting it already). Take a look and see what you think.

And if you don’t like what you see, you can fix it yourself! Wikipedia encourages all readers to “be bold” in editing articles. But staff and volunteers at PLE organizations should take note of Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guidelines [link], which urge you not to link to or trumpet your own organization.

I hope this article will grow to become a high-quality explanation of what PLE is, what it does, and why it’s important. Since Wikipedia is becoming a first reference source for journalists, scholars, and the public, the Wikipedia PLE entry could have a big impact on worldwide understanding of PLE.

“Neutrality” and PLE: examples?

March 22, 2007

Motivated by the healthy debate in the comments to my “Neutrality” and PLE post, I spent some time this morning looking for “biased” PLE content. And now I’m wondering if this debate is all theory and no practice—I don’t see much of a difference between the “impartial” providers and the “advocacy”-oriented groups.

I sampled content from two PLE organizations that make a point of staying neutral (the People’s Law School and Éducaloi) and from three associated with an advocacy approach (CLEO, LSS, and TRAC). I hoped to spotlight some illustrative excerpts in this post, but I couldn’t find any.

Can anyone offer some recent examples of obviously “biased” or “neutral” PLE content?

Until I can find some modern passages to compare, here a couple items from the 1970s that I suspect most would say are not “neutral”:

Above: a page from The Law is Not for Women: A Legal Handbook for Women (1976) by Marvin Zuker and June Callwood. Click on the image to enlarge it.
Above: the cover of the June 1974 newsletter of the (now-defunct) People’s Law School in San Francisco. That “People’s Law School” was supposedly the inspiration for the Vancouver-based People’s Law School. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Jury research and PLEI

March 21, 2007

Jury research is an huge field that’s all about something highly relevant to PLEI providers: how the general public perceives law, lawyers, and the courts. There are dozens of jury research firms. They consult with trial attorneys on how to best convey a message to a random cross-section of the public.

One of those firms, Animators at Law, has just released the results of its three-year study comparing the communication and learning styles of lawyers and nonlawyers. The full report is available online [716 KB PDF], but here are the principle findings:

  • Practicing attorneys and the general public communicate in significantly different ways.
  • The general public prefers learning visually by a significant majority.
  • Practicing attorneys, unlike most people, are not majority visual learners and communicators.

“One can reasonably conclude,” the report’s authors say, that “the attorneys who endeavor to communicate as effectively and efficiently as possible with [juries], may, in fact, not be doing so.” The study involved a survey of 387 lawyers and 1,657 nonlawyers in the US (is the Canadian bar and public different?).

This study is hardly the only work of jury research that might be relevant to PLEI. Jury instructions, after all, are a kind of public legal education, taught by judges in a formal setting. Jury instructions might be one the oldest forms of PLE, in fact! Yet in all of my research, I’ve found no evidence of the PLEI field examining to results of jury research. Should it be?

The update problem: “one time” PLE

March 20, 2007

Yesterday I introduced what I call the “update problem” of PLE: when law changes, somebody has to update all of the PLE materials about that law and try to prevent the public from relying on any outdated materials.

There are two kinds of “update problem”: the “anytime” PLE kind (pamphlets, booklets, videos, websites, and so on—content that the public can use “anytime”) and the “one-time” PLE kind (workshops, classes, and trainings that happen at a specific time). I talked about the anytime kind yesterday.

The one-time PLE update problem is the anytime problem exploded into abstraction. Although all knowledge evolves over time (consider history, science, English, and geography), the law is unstable by design. Similar fields like public health education, civic education, and human rights education all deal with content that’s less fluid than PLE. In modern democratic societies like the US and Canada, the law is a current event; and you can’t teach the news with a year-old newspaper.

So, although one-time PLE does not “linger” in the same way a pamphlet does (obsolete on a rack or, worse, in someone’s desk drawer), one-time PLE lingers just as much. The update problem of one time PLE draws our attention to the basic update problem of all PLE: I keep what I learn from PLE with me, and pass it on to others, until you teach me what’s new.

In this way, the anytime PLE update problem is a simpler, practical problem of how to keep the public away from out-of-date material. The one-time PLE update problem is a complex, fundamental problem of how to teach a subject that changes constantly. Thus, solutions to the one-time PLE update problem would be solutions to the anytime problem, too.

But how can we address the one-time PLE update problem?

  • By giving up? One solution is to not address it. To say, “the law changes all the time and that’s a fact of life that PLE can’t help.”
  • By tracking users? PLE groups could make an extra effort to keep in touch with those who attend classes and take materials. The web and email make this approach more and more possible.
  • By teaching habits, not just substance? Maybe all PLE events should start with a non-boilerplate lesson on how to use legal information (like this one [link] from US for-profit PLE provider Nolo Press).

Surely some of the education academics and professionals out there have some thoughts on this. I’m certain, in fact, that there must be whole bodies of literature on this—can anyone direct me to it?

The update problem: “anytime” PLE

March 19, 2007

Nearly all PLE programming has to deal with what I’ve come to call “the update problem. The law is always changing, and PLE program content that doesn’t change with it can be much more harmful than helpful. This problem distinguishes PLE from the other side of legal services delivery, casework, where legal advice is tailored for a specific person with a specific issue at a specific time. But in PLE, legal information (and training) cannot be so specifically tailored; PLE is a one-size-fits-many strategy.

There are actually two different “update problems” in PLE. These correspond to the two most basic categories of PLE delivery: “anytime” PLE and “one time” PLE:

  • Anytime PLE: the PLE content that’s recorded—in text, video, audio, photo, and so on—and shared with the public, who can refer to it anytime they want. These are the pamphlets, booklets, web pages, and videos of PLE.
  • One-time PLE: the PLE that involves live talking, showing, and doing. That is, the lectures, classes, workshops, webinars, radio shows, and phone hotlines of PLE.

The anytime PLE update problem is the most obvious. The moment a law changes, any pamphlet about that law is immediately out of date. A $20,000 video production might become useless in an instant. What solutions to this? Well…

  • The web! Putting PLE content on the web means you can update it continuously. Éducaloi is an example of an organization that has focused its PLE delivery on the web, and it is able to update its information simultaneously with changes in the law.
  • Timeless basics and general principles. You can develop anytime materials that only include information that will always be true—the fundamental principles of criminal law, or the history of the court system, for example. Éducaloi employs this strategy as well, publishing brochures marked as “Toujours egzakt.”
  • Discard notices. Using a recall approach, you can put a system in place for letting the world know when your PLE materials have gone bad. Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) uses this approach, and their current “Discard List” is available online [459 KB PDF].
  • Supplements. Another approach is to add inserts to your existing materials that notify a reader of changes in the law and which parts of your pamphlet are affected. This is the way most legal publishers (for lawyers) operate—issuing a monthly or annual “pocket part” that contains every change in the law since the last supplement.
  • “Born on” dates. Probably the least expensive solution is to just print the publication date prominently on all materials and leave it at that. Accompanying this “born on” date with a warning that the law can change on short notice makes these notices more helpful. Many PLE providers, both sole-purpose and non-, follow this approach.

After condensing what I’ve learned on the road, I’d say that these five ideas are about all that’s out there on the “anytime” PLE update problem. Also, it’s worth noting that I haven’t found any research on how bad the problem of out-of-date PLE actually is. How often are people using obsolete materials? And how big of a mess are they getting into because of it?

Apologies for the blackout

March 19, 2007

I was out of the country for the second half of last week. Although I meant to warn of this before I left, I was recording podcast interviews up until the very minute that I had to leave for the airport. Regular posting resumes today, and new podcasts should be appearing soon.

PLEI Quotes

March 13, 2007

As part of work to revise the “Theory and Practice of PLE in Canada” website, I have been collecting pithy and provocative quotations about PLE and the public’s understanding of law. As a way of getting a post up today while simultaneously shuffling out the door to the airport, I thought I’d paste a few of them here:

  • “Ensure that justice is not only done but also seen by the larger public.” —Chris Maina Peter, Zanzibar Law Society
  • “[The law] usually works not by exercise of force but by information transfer, by communication of what’s expected, what forbidden, what allowable, what are the consequences of acting in certain ways.” — Marc Galanter, American law professor
  • “It should be obvious now, if it has not always been so, that law is too important to be left to the lawyers.” —American Association of Law Schools, Proceedings of the Committee on Teaching Law Outside of Law School (1963)
  • “Publicity is the very soul of justice.” — Jeremy Bentham, English jurist and philosopher
  • “I think it were well that every man that can read, had a statute book; for certainly no knowledge of those laws, by which men’s lives and fortunes can be brought into danger, can be too much.” —Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher
  • “Legal literacy both demands from the legal system a commitment to be responsive to the needs, concerns and priorities of the citizen, and demands from the citizen a commitment to participate in the legal process. Both aspects of legal literacy are important, and both are implicit in the aims and objectives of PLEI.” —Gail Dykstra, former director of the Legal Information Secretariat of the Canadian Law Information Council (CLIC)
  • “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” —Thomas Jefferson, Virginian farmer
  • “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker, American author
  • “Without irrational, sudden reversals of meaning [in the law], something terrible could happen: laypeople could advise themselves!” —John C. Harrison, American law professor

Do you have a favorite PLE quote that you’d like to add to the list? Suggest it in a comment or email me.