There is nothing so practical as good theory
– Kurt Lewin
Public legal education began in Canada during the late 1960s at a time when the roles and performance of many of our social institutions were being questioned. Initially the very idea of public legal education was considered radical – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Dangerous to the individual who might make decisions based on that knowledge that would have catastrophic consequences. Dangerous to the legal profession because PLE threatened the profession’s monopoly over the law and legal processes and the power that went with that monopoly. However, in the ensuing years, public legal education has proven to be not only an empty threat to the profession but a useful component of the Canadian legal system. PLE facilitates better access to lawyers and better management of their clients’ legal affairs. So what happened? Why and how did the original radical project get co-opted by the legal establishment? Or did it? What has changed in society and PLE since the sixties and what has stayed the same? Does PLE still have a radical mission?
At this point in my ruminations, my thoughts are focused on two themes:
- The constraints imposed on public legal education by its grounding in legal positivism: how it came to be so grounded, what the problems are with legal positivism, and what alternatives might be worth considering.
I am taking HLA Hart as the reference for legal positivism for reasons I will explain in a blog entry. I am updating my understanding of legal positivism by reading McCormick’s work, particularly on post-positivism. I’m also looking at the work of critical legal theorists to see what they might have to offer us.
- The social justice program for public legal education: what is meant by the term social justice, ways of achieving it, possible roles for public legal education in moving toward a more just society.
I am currently reading Agnes Heller, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Michale Sandel, and Richard Bauman to get grounded in contemporary ideas about social justice.
As the blog title suggests, I’m focusing on the influence that legal theory has had on the development of PLE. I do so with a very full realization that the scope of PLE has been substantially defined by those who fund that work. I spent a full forty years in the trenches! Raising funding for a more radical form of PLE might be impossible. That said, I would argue that the idea of law that lies behind the decisions of funders is also positivistic, indeed perhaps more positivistic than some PLE agencies might wish. Part of the job to be done lies with getting law schools to introduce students to a broad range of insights about law so that when they become funders they will recognized that the domain of public legal education is larger than the positivist notion of law suggests. I’m not naive enough to think they’ll suddenly start funding a more radical project, but it may be possible to make some inroads into funding a more robust approach to public legal education.
This blog will progress as my journey proceeds. To make sense of it all, you may find it helpful to read the blogs in the order they’ve been written. The blog format doesn’t help much with that. You’ll have to scroll down to the bottom and work your way back through them. Every once in a while, I’ll try to summarize where I’m at. Then you’ll only need to read backward from the summary.
My project is ambitious. I need help!!!! Please feel free to comment on any of the material I post. Consider it all a work in progress. If I don’t respond as appropriately as you might think your comment warrants. Please be patient with me. I find it often takes me some time to incorporate critiques into my thinking. I usually get there but the journey is arduous. Trust that I appreciate your thoughts. I’m just not as quick on my feet as you might wish.
Also, please feel free to suggest fruitful lines of inquiry, writers you enjoy, questions that are challenging you. I hope this blog will prove provocative for all of us.