How PLEI will change the world

May 16, 2007

It’s fun and productive to focus exclusively on PLEI and the major impacts it can have. But PLEI is not going to save the world all by itself. PLEI must ultimately be integrated into a broader access to justice framework if it’s going to have a lasting and effective impact.

Many legal needs assessment recognize this—and legal needs reports from Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere are fantastic places for finding calls for more and better PLEI. Often, however, PLEI will only get mentioned is in a single recommendation among dozens. It is rare for a legal needs report to identify PLEI as a major area for attention. It’s rarer still for a needs report to single out PLEI as a giant missing piece that has been grievously neglected in favor of more and more case-by-case advice and direct representation.

A recent legal needs report from the UK is an exception. In Causes of Action: Civil Law and Social Justice [1.4 MB PDF], Pascoe Pleasence and his co-authors point emphatically to PLEI as an access to justice component that deserves substantial development.

I am tempted to reproduce the entire multi-page PLEI recommendation from the book. Instead, though, I will excerpt these highlights:

Our findings confirm the diversity of people’s responses to justiciable problems, and illustrate how people sometimes take no action at all to resolve apparently serious problems . . . . and the most common reason for this is a belief that nothing could be done. . . . Coupled with our findings that indicate people’s choices of advisers can be desperate and unpromising, it is clear that the continuing development of education and information strategies regarding rights, obligations, the basic principles and sources of advice, and methods for resolving justiciable problems has an important role to play in promoting social justice. . . . As [Roderick] Macdonald has indicated, basic methods of increasing awareness, such as distributing information through pamphlets, videotapes, and radio-spots “can be very effective,” and targeted distribution of information is also possible through services that routinely engage with the public . . . However, . . . such methods will need to overcome the often inaccurate impression regarding rights and process that people receive “through the haphazard and selective reports of journalists, whose primary interest is in selling newspapers, and via televised representations of legal proceedings in which the principal objective is entertainment.”

Evidently, raising awareness of rights, responsibilities and options to enforce them is not all that is required to enable people to take effective action to resolve justiciable problems. . . . [I]ndividuals must have a broader “capability” to act to resolve problems than simple understanding provides. They must, for example, be able to recognise problems, recognise when advice and assistance is necessary, and communicate effectively, whether in taking action on their own behalf, obtaining advice, or instructing others to act for them. Information and education are therefore necessary to enable people to take effective action to resolve problems, but not always sufficient. . . . Thus . . . information and education should not be regarded as cheap alternatives to advice and assistance.

Furthermore, . . . people facing certain types of problems may require not just advice and representation, but also broader support if they are to be able to act effectively. This may require effective co-ordination of advice and non-advice services.

The entire needs report (which the Legal Services Research Centre has published as a book) ought to be required reading for anyone involved in PLEI policy. I know that some of my readers will be promptly pointing me to similar passages from U.S. and Canadian needs assessments, and I welcome those comments.

For-profit PLE

May 15, 2007

Although I have focused my Fulbright research on nonprofit public legal education efforts, it would be foolish and impossible to completely ignore the for-profit PLE operations out there. In the U.S., Nolo is the behemoth. In Canada, Self-Counsel Press is, if not a behemoth, at least a major player—in the supermarket across the street from my Edmonton apartment, it is a display of Self-Counsel Press guides and kits, not PLENA or Legal Resource Centre materials, that greets every grocery trip I make.

I have run across some decades-old materials that suggest that Self-Counsel Press was once invited to the table, along with Canada’s nonprofit PLE providers, to strategize delivery and share skills. There’s no evidence that Self-Counsel Press came to the table though, or that there has been any crosstalk between for-profit and nonprofit PLE since then. The for-profit and the nonprofit PLE worlds have been left to evolve as separate planets, each figuring out on their own how to assess need, market products, communicate clearly, and evaluate success.

In the States, Nolo has become a highly-evolved PLE entity. It has astounding name recognition across millions of Americans and has gained strong respect and trust from many sources, including major media outlets. Nolo’s website has evolved into a substantial PLE resource, featuring dozens of free articles, FAQs, and podcasts on high-demand personal legal topics. Interestingly, Nolo’s history parallels the history of the earliest Canadian PLE organizations: the company was begun at the beginning of the 1970s by a frustrated young legal aid lawyer who felt that the legal system was needlessly complex and that the general public deserved reliable, plain language legal information.

In Canada, Self-Counsel Press has never achieved the prominence that Nolo has. Has the federally- and provincially-funded network of sole-purpose PLE providers been part of the reason for that? In any case, what could nonprofit PLE learn from for-profit PLE? Is it even conceivable that nonprofit and for-profit PLE would cooperate for skill-sharing and delivery strategizing? And, importantly, what can nonprofit PLE do that for-profit PLE never will? Has there ever been enough thought about these questions?

Law libraries and PLE

May 11, 2007

It seems like I am always off to an airport on a Friday, with little time to write a decent entry for this blog. Today is no exception.

As a compromise, however, I am including three quick links to other blogs that have been covering a couple of law library conferences recently.

First a couple links to the Library Boy blog, written by Michel-Adrien Sheppard, a reference librarian at the Supreme Court of Canada. He provided coverage of this week’s Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference in Ottawa. Two relevant postings are those on:

Second, from the All-Purpose Biblioblawg, by Meg Kribble, a reference librarian at the Nova Southeastern University Law Library, is coverage of the Southeastern Chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries‘s conference. Specifically, she provided a brief synopsis of

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?

(Belated) Dispatch from the road: Saskatoon and Winnipeg site visits

May 8, 2007

Limited internet access and a bout of influenza has kept me away from this blog for a while, but in the meantime I completed site visits of PLEA in Saskatoon and CLEA in Winnipeg. With these visits I have now visited every Canadian province and all the major sole-purpose PLE providers in Canada outside of the territories.

The Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan, headquartered in Saskatoon, began in 1980 in the basement of the Saskatoon Public Library. In the 27 years since, it has continued to serve Saskatchewan (current population: about 988,000) as the province’s only sole-purpose public legal education provider. At the core of PLEA’s programming are plain language publications and youth and schools programming including curricular materials. Other ongoing programs include regular newspaper articles, a speakers bureau, and intermediary training. A website provides access to the organization’s publications and information about its various programs.

The Community Legal Education Association, incorporated in Winnipeg in 1984, is Manitoba’s sole-purpose PLE organization. CLEA’s biggest program is a lawyer-staffed legal hotline and lawyer referral service. Additional core programming includes plain language publications, intermediary training, a provincial legal services directory, a speakers bureau, and a website. Based in what is surely Canada’s most under-appreciated major city, CLEA is unique among sole-purpose PLE providers in that it receives substantial annual financial support from its province’s law society.

Saskatoon and Winnipeg site visits

May 1, 2007

I am in Saskatoon and Winnipeg this week, visiting first PLEA and then CLEA. Regular posting will resume next week.

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?