Archive for the 'Research Notes' Category

Standards for PLE

May 10, 2007

In August 2006, the American Bar Association issued a big document titled Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid [1.5 MB PDF]. The new Standards are a full replacement for an older standards document first adopted in 1986. One of the significant revisions is a major overhaul of the section on public legal education and information.

Although the standards and their commentary are tailored for civil legal aid providers in the U.S., they could be directly applied to Canadian PLE efforts.

Here are highlights:

  • Responsibilities of the provider
    • Accurate information: providers “must use reasonable care that the information given is accurate.”
    • Accessible materials: providers should “make certain that legal information materials can be understood by the intended users” and “should also be sensitive to culture mores of the various low income populations” that they serve.
    • Protection of information from disclosure: providers should recognize that information people divulge in obtaining legal education and information can be “personal and may involve sensitive matters”; thus, providers “should take care not to disclose it to others, except for a legitimate purpose” and “should organize … operations so that to the degree possible, personal disclosures cannot be heard by others.”
    • Evaluation: providers “should periodically assess whether [their] legal education efforts are succeeding in conveying the information intended and whether persons who receive it are able to act on the information imparted.”

The full commentary to this standard (Standard 3.6 “on the provision of legal information”) has a whole bunch of other relevant material, including much more on provider responsibilities, a section on legal advice versus legal information versus legal education, a collection of rationales for PLE, and a discussion on when PLE is appropriate in light of unmet need for direct representation. Plus, other standards include 2.4 (“Cultural Competence”), 3.5 (“Assistance to Pro Se Litigants”), and 4.6 (“Communication in the Primary Languages of Persons Served”).

Should Canadian PLE providers, perhaps through PLEAC or perhaps in coordination with other access to justice players in Canada, develop a set of standards for PLE in this country? If so, what would be different from the ABA’s standards? What could be added?


Plain language

May 9, 2007

“Plain language”—communicating in ways that your audience will understand easily—has been part of the bedrock of Canadian public legal education since the beginning. Although PLE providers have deployed plain language techniques mainly in text, most commonly in pamphlets and booklets, plain language ideas have infected so many aspects of PLE work that it’s often hard to imagine the plain language strategy as something technically separate from public legal education.

Éducaloi recently let me know that it will be presenting a workshop on plain language at the annual meeting of the Barreau du Québec. This workshop’s goal will be to encourage debate on the role of plain language in Québec’s legal profession. Inspired by this announcement, I thought I would use this blog to encourage an assessment of the use of plain language in Canadian PLE and a debate on what could be different.


Canadian PLE providers have been involved in two strands of “plain language.” One is the movement to require that legislation, instruments of law, and government communications be written in plain language. This is an international movement, and a successful one in some places, like Sweden and the State of Washington. Canadian PLE providers once played a noticeable role in Canadian arm of this movement, but their involvement has tailed off.

PLE providers have stuck much more closely to the strand of “plain language” that’s about communicating in easy-to-understand, audience-targeted ways. Ever since the earliest, late-1960s law student clinic efforts at educating the Canadian public about law, PLE people have been using plain language techniques—whether consciously or unconsciously, formally or informally. Sophistication in this area has increased remarkably over the years, and today many sole-purpose PLE providers use plain language handbooks, provide plain language training for staff, and, in some cases, employ full-time plain language editors.

It seems, though, that PLE providers have focused their plain language attention on print publications. Indeed, I wonder if it would be fair to rank the places that plain language has found in PLE in descending order like this:

  1. Text of print publications
  2. Text of websites
  3. Design and layout of print publications
  4. Design and layout of websites
  5. Content of classes and workshops
  6. Content of audio and video projects
  7. Content of speakers bureau events

As for where the help provided in phone/email legal info and referral hotlines would go in that ranking, I’m really not sure.


If this “ranking” picture is roughly accurate, is this the way plain language should should look in PLE? Is document and graphic design paid too little attention, as apparently often happens in other fields? Could there be more infusion of plain language techniques into “live” PLE events, like workshops? Should speakers bureau volunteers receive more training in plain language strategies?

And what about the plain language in legislation and government communications movement? Why did Canadian PLE providers move away from it? Wouldn’t pressuring government to improve its own communications methods make PLE’s job easier, and generally improve Canadians’ understanding of law and government?

Government communications vs. PLEI: Part 2

April 27, 2007

Yesterday I opened up the “government communications versus PLEI” can of worms. In yesterday’s stab at the issue—stab one of two—I tried to sort out the differences between PLEI and “communications” from government. A handy way of thinking of it, I propose, is this:

“Government communications” legal information is like product information from the manufacturer. Independent PLEI is like product information from a third party product reviewer. Both can be helpful, both can be wrong, both can be biased.

Today, I want to tackle the rest of this issue: first, whether government can make real PLEI, distinct from “communications”; and then, how we might reduce the confusion and debate around this topic.


Can we make a meaningful distinction between different types of legal information that the government produces? That is, is there real government PLEI that’s not government “communications”?

Marie Moliner, in her 1997 PLEI Review [311 KB PDF] answered “yes, but…” to these questions. She pointed out that Justice Canada has a budget for producing PLEI materials internally and has used it for programming similar to the programming that independent PLEI organizations do. However, Moliner discovered a consensus that Justice Canada’s PLEI efforts were far from optimal. She collected a long list of complaints about the government PLEI, including:

  • the materials were written at too high a literacy level
  • materials were not sensitive to regional differences
  • text and images were unclear and even confusing
  • “communications” messages would creep in to the PLEI

Plus, Moliner noted the further problem that community organizations and the public are often more skeptical of government PLEI than of non-government PLEI.

Altogether, I think this shows that while the differences between communications, government PLEI, and independent PLEI may fall across a continuum, there are significant disadvantages to government-produced legal information and PLEI programming. Moliner, in fact, recommended in her report that Justice Canada cease all internal PLEI production and adopt a policy of contracting all PLEI work to independent organizations.


To get some insight into solving this issue, we ought to look to the UK, where a national task force is currently trying to come up with a sturdy national strategy for PLE.

The UK task force has directly considered the question of how involved the government should be in PLE. The consensus they’ve come to is that PLE must be independent: “PLE itself must be available from independent sources and must be seen to be independently produced” [the report: 273 KB PDF]. Comments from around the UK noted that:

“non-governmental organisations may offer a wider degree of independence, impartiality and innovation”

and that

“if there is to be a responsible body [it should be] independent of government: there is always a risk that information will be edited in its presentation to suit the interests of the body that commissions that information.”

These observations from the UK, especially when combined with the Moliner review’s recommendations, strongly suggest that we should favor independent PLEI over government PLEI. But even if we establish a formal preference for independent PLEI, the government will never be able to avoid (or resist) disseminating legal information to the public. How do we delineate roles?

We might be able to delineate roles the same way we delineate roles between PLEI organizations and direct legal services agencies: with a disclaimer. Already, PLEI organizations use disclaimers to point out that their role is to provide information and education, not advice. Government could do the same, using disclaimers to urge the public to go to PLE organizations for practical, localized legal learning. It might look something like this:

The information here is government issued legal information. It represents the government’s interpretation of the law and is not intended as practical assistance. For practical information and education about legal issues, appropriate for your area, contact a public legal education organization. If you need personalized legal advice, call a lawyer or legal aid agency.

Is this a good start? Or would this never work?

Government communications vs. PLEI: Part 1

April 26, 2007

Confusion and debate about the difference between public legal education and “government communications” began decades ago and has continued to today. There are, I think, three main questions here:

  1. What’s the difference between the two?
  2. Is government capable of producing PLEI that’s not also “communications”?
  3. How can we eliminate the confusion and end the debate?

Today, I’ll tackle the first question. Tomorrow, I’ll work on the other two.


Doug Surtees, former Co-Director of PLEA, has suggested that although both PLEI and government communications employ similar methods (pamphlets, videos, workshops, etc.) and share a purpose (telling people “what the law is”), the rest of their functions can be very different. Government communications are tools for shaping public opinion and promoting the Government’s policies and politics. PLEI, on the other hand, is generally “not aimed at obtaining greater acceptance of the law,” as Marie Moliner said in her 1997 PLEI Review [311 KB PDF] for Justice Canada. Rather, “it explains the law in a way which is accessible to the PLEI user. As a result, PLEI information may be critical of legislation—especially if it is perceived as removing rights and making the laws more complex for some.

Moliner proposes simple definitions of PLEI and government communications:

PLEI “is practical legal information provided independent of government, and targeted to specific groups or regions. It includes a capacity to be critical of and provide a context about and strategic advice on how to use a law.”

Government communications provide “information about a law without criticism or advice,” are “necessarily seen as reflecting the perspective of the government” and are “conveyed in terms approved by the [Government]”.

I think these definitions work for highlighting the difference. At their essence, I think they tell us that while government communications are promotional and tow the official line, PLEI materials are practical and tow whatever line they want.

In other words, I suggest that the difference between government communications and PLEI is just like the difference between getting product information from the manufacturer and getting it from a third party:

  • either could be misleading
  • both can be helpful
  • you know that the manufacturer will be biased
  • but you usually can’t be sure whether or how the third party is biased

Tomorrow: whether there is any such thing as “government PLEI” and how we can sort this whole mess out.

Law-related education

April 25, 2007

“Law-related education” (LRE) has come to be the term for PLE in schools. Although you wouldn’t know that from the phrase itself, the term originally came from the United States. In the States, the schools component of PLE has always been the forefront of the field, and the term “public legal education” has not (yet) become pervasive.

In this way, Canada and the U.S. have had opposite PLE experiences. While in the States, PLE has been mostly LRE and the driving force has often been the field of education, in Canada, LRE has remained a smaller part of a larger PLE movement driven primarily by government and the legal profession.

Of all the parts of the Canadian PLE field, the LRE component is the one I know the least about. Wanda Cassidy‘s piece, Law-Related Education: Promoting Awareness, Participation and Action, in a book from 2000 called Weaving Connections, provides a good short background to Canadian LRE. (Roland Case’s On the Threshold: Canadian Law-Related Education, published in 1985, is a more comprehensive examination.) Cassidy’s article argues that, although Canadian LRE had some tremendous initial successes, the 1990s brought its “unraveling.”

Cassidy says that five mistakes caused the decline of LRE in Canada:

  1. Focusing on information, not education
  2. Going it alone and the failure to build strong partnerships with players in the education field
  3. Neglecting reflection and analysis in favor of “doing and producing”
  4. A difficult vocabulary
  5. Control by government, not the grassroots

Others, though, wonder whether a smaller role might not be exactly the right place for LRE. That’s what Glen Rivard argued in 1980 when he was Legal Director of CLEO:

Increasingly, there is a trend to concentrate, or even to limit, the provision of public legal education to students, specifically high school students. What of the person on the street, however; the person never blessed with a high school course on the law, or whose law course is ten years in the past? Is teaching law to high school students the primary goal of public legal education or are broader goals warranted, encompassing the provision of information on the law and legal system to the general public?

What is the proper role for LRE (that is, schools-based PLE)? Has LRE “unraveled” in Canada? If so, how should it be put back together? Would the American system, where LRE is at the center of the PLE movement, be better?

Twenty-year time warp: Canadian PLE in 1987

April 20, 2007

It’s 1987, and it is a watershed year for public legal education in Canada. Infused with federal interest and dollars, the movement is on the verge of “completing the network”: there is now a sole-purpose PLE organization in every province and territory except New Brunswick. Justice Canada’s core funding commitment has just jumped from a $60,000 to a $70,000 minimum annual commitment per organization. A bunch of PLE organizations have gotten together to form a national umbrella organization, the Public Legal Education Association of Canada.

The artifacts of Canadian PLE brim with hope and vigor. After fifteen years of creating the field out of nothing, pulling it up by its bootstraps, and dragging it into a skeptical and sometimes hostile world, the pioneers of PLE are beginning to see the light, and it is good.

* * * * *

Considering the great promise of that year, I thought I ought to use this blog to leave a little window open into 1987. To do that, I’m posting a “Survey of Public Legal Education in Canada” from 1987, compiled by Suzan Hebditch and published that year in the Canadian Association of Law Librares Newsletter/Bulletin. PLE researchers and anybody currently involved with a sole-purpose PLE organization will likely be interested in taking a look.

Here it is [1 MB PDF].

The disappearing free law class

April 19, 2007

When PLE first got really rolling in Canada, the “free law class” was a definitive part of it. In fact, the very first sole-purpose PLE organization in Canada—the People’s Law School—got its start providing nothing but free law classes. The Toronto Community Law Program (now CLEO) got started soon after that, with the same idea: hold classes on legal topics and invite all of the public, at no charge. As other sole-purpose PLE outfits came on the scene, many put free law classes at the center of their programming as well.

That prominence has all but disappeared now. In the mid-1980s, CLEO all but scrapped its free law class program and is now an organization that devotes nearly all of its energy to producing and distributing print publications. The People’s Law School did a review of its programming in the 1990s and decided to refocus its efforts away the free law classes, although that program continues in speakers’ bureau form. In every other sole-purpose PLE organization that has taken up the free law class format, you can chart a significant decline in the number of classes offered as time has worn on.

Most class-format PLE work by sole-purpose PLE groups seems now to be workshops and training for intermediaries. Few offer classes for the general public, and most of those that do offer them only irregularly. Yet, other PLE providers—especially legal aid organizations—have kept free law classes at the core of their PLE efforts.

Why is this? Is this the result of a gradual negotiation of expertise between sole-purpose and non-sole-purpose PLE providers over the years? Did the free law class delivery strategy prove ineffective? Was it too costly?

I actually have some answers to these questions, but I will have to wait to disclose them in a formal article and after tending to my research ethics obligations. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear what those involved have to say about the disappearance of the free law class from independent PLE.

Ancient PLE

April 18, 2007

I’ve had a fascinating afternoon working up a short section, for a longer article, about the historical roots of public legal education. Though these roots may go back even further, we can trace them at least as far back as Ancient Greece and the origins of promulgation.

As early as the 6th Century BC, the idea that the laws must be written down and made public was becoming fundamental. “In no circumstances shall magistrates enforce a law that has not been inscribed,” became an articulated principal of Athenian law, and most legislation was inscribed in wood and publicly displayed. Demosthenes, the famous Athenian lawyer and orator, noted: “all the citizens have the same laws before them, simple to read and to understand.”

If there were a list of “world heritage of PLE” sites, the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes would be on it. At this monument, in the agora (Athens’s central forum and marketplace), the legislators (Nomothetai) would publish all new enacted legislation for the public to see. Also, any citizen could propose new legislation by posting it at the Monument.

On the above illustration of the Monument, you can see spaces below the ledge that the statues rest on. These spaces were where the new laws and proposed legislation would hang—the ledge protected postings from the weather. It was a crime to modify or vandalize the inscriptions, and the Senate appointed special officers (Grammateiz) to ensure the postings stayed legible. Certain laws were also inscribed in stone in the Stoa Basileios, also in the agora.

The commitment to popular promulgation was taken up in Ancient Rome as well, where all laws had to be made known in “clear letters” and in a place where people would be able to see them. The despotic emperor Caligula famously perverted this requirement by inscribing the laws at the top of buildings in small characters, and then collecting money from citizens who violated laws they never knew about.

Seventeen centuries later, the English jurist Jeremy Bentham railed against the lack of adequate promulgation in England by pointing out: “Caligula published his laws in small characters; but still he published them: he hung them up high, but still he hung them up. English judges neither hang up their laws, nor publish them.”

PLE for the blind

April 17, 2007

I set out today to write an entry on public legal education for the blind. I have to report, however, that I’ve found almost nothing on this topic.

Statistics Canada reports that there were nearly 600,000 Canadians with a “seeing disability” in 2001. Several sole-purpose and major PLE providers produce audio (and audio-visual materials)—distributed over the radio, the internet, and on videocassettes and DVDs—and a couple produce print materials with extra large type. In the late 1970s, the People’s Law School recorded a number of their publications as “talking books” and distributed them at free law classes about the rights of blind people. But in my travels, although several staff have mentioned a need for materials and access specially for the blind, I have not heard of any contemporary project that is actively targeted at the visually impaired. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Of course, many visually impaired people use the web extensively, with the help of screen readers and other accessibility devices. I have not heard of any major Canadian PLE organization validating the accessibility of its website, or providing content related to legal issues that visually disabled people face. There are tools, including the free Watchfire WebXACT, for checking the accessibility of any website. Research and centres also provide tips on web accessibility, and I should note that I did find a policy on accessible web content on PovNet. Again, please leave a comment if you know of programs that I have not heard of or am not thinking of.

UPDATE: CLEO and CLEONet have dealt thoroughly with accessibility issues. See CLEONet’s page on web accessibility, its checklist for compliance with accessibility standards, and CLEONet Project Manager Fiona MacCool’s and CLEO Clear Langauge Editor Kim McCutcheon’s comments below.

UPDATE 2: The LSS Family Law website is also accessible for vision-impaired web users. See Thom Quine’s comment below.

UPDATE 3: Éducaloi has begun adding audio to some of its “infosheets,” an addition specifically targeted at the blind. See Philippe Miquel’s comment below.

Are the blind and their legal issues not showing up in PLE needs assessments? Does more work and effort need to given to this area? What strategies could be used to reach this group?

Stop pretending

April 16, 2007

Last week, I wrote about how to describe the PLE program planning process and how funders’ demands co-opt that process and possibly undermine the expertise of PLE organizations. To recap, I proposed distilling PLE program development into discrete steps (needs assessment, design, development, delivery, and evaluation, perhaps) and then noted how some project funding will force a particular need, design, and even development method onto a grantee. And when the funder also requires unhelpful evaluation, the PLE organization becomes merely a delivery mechanism for the funder’s own message.

But rethinking what “program planning” really is could lessen this project funding co-optation effect. So says a creative 1994 article called The Politics of Responsibility: A Theory of Program Planning Practice for Adult Education, by Ronald M. Cervero and Arthur L. Wilson.

Those authors say this: stop pretending. Stop pretending that the impact of politics, funding, and power are just “noise” or “context” in the program planning process. Realize, instead, that education programs are planned by real people working in complex organizations and dealing with power relations and interests that are pushing and pulling at the developing program from all sides.

In other words, education programming is like cuisine: how it tastes will reflect the culture it was made in—unless the chefs were conscious of their culture and looked outside of it for inspiration.

Cervero and Wilson break this recognition down into four pieces:

  • Power: power is capacity to act, and the players in just a single program (the PLE organization, the funder, the target group, the rest of society, and so on) will have different capacities for influence on the program. Planners must realize this, the authors say.
  • Interests: these are the values, desires, expectations, and goals of each player—interests are what the players use their power for. We might also call them “motivations,” and planners must be aware of them, too.
  • Negotiation: this is the characteristic activity of program planning, Cervero and Wilson argue. Using the power they have, planners negotiate with their own interests and between the interests of the other players involved, ultimately agreeing on and producing a PLE program. Yet, all along, planners are also negotiating about the power and the interests that they have; doing certain programs, or doing them in certain ways, can improve or endanger the relationships the planner has with the other players.
  • Responsibility: the most important piece. The planners’ responsibility is the “central problem of their practice” and it requires them to decide what interests they are negotiating for and to whom they ultimately are “politically and ethically answerable.” By understanding this responsibility, planners decide on the “world” that they will “make.”

The authors believe that the planning process should be “democratized” in light of these realities. Otherwise, adult education programs will always be shaped by those with the most power (and in the PLE world, that will often be the funder). The vision, say the authors, should be that “all people affected by the program have a right to participate in constructing it.” Although it can be hard to identify who all those people are, Cervero and Wilson suggest five standard groups to include:

  1. learners
  2. teachers
  3. planners
  4. institutional leadership
  5. “the affected public”

For PLE, it may be good to also include funders, government, and the legal profession in that list.

Some PLE organizations, I can report, already follow a version of this “democratized” planning process, though perhaps not with the awareness of power, interests, negotiation, and responsibility that Cervero and Wilson recommend.