The terminology surrounding Public Legal Education tends to be confusing.
Some jurisdictions use the terms Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) or Public Legal Information (PLI). Other jurisdictions have adopted the term community instead of public. They may refer to Community Legal Education (CLE) or Community Legal Information (CLI).
Some people equate plain language and public legal education. However, those are overlapping but not synonymous fields.
The term Law-Related Education (LRE) is used by some to distinguish public legal education that is carried on in the schools from that which is directed to adult audiences.
The reasons for these differences in terminology are largely historical. In its early years in Canada, PLE was sometimes referred to as preventive law. At that time it was associated with the anti-poverty movement. Use of the term ‘community’ rather than ‘public’ carries symbolic meaning in some instances. The addition of the words ‘and information’ helped to align programs or activities with the mandates of particular agencies, especially funders. Using only the word “information’ may help to reduce confusion over the mandate of the organization. It makes it clear that PLE services do not include legal advice or assistance.
The term, legal capability, was introduced into the PLE vocabulary by the Law for Life (previously Plenet) organization in the UK. The term is also used in Australia and, recently, in some Canadian provinces.
Legal Empowerment has been employed by the UN in some of its development work.
Definition by words used
Efforts to define PLE with any precision have largely failed. Each of the words that make up the term are themselves concepts that elude definition.
- Public may refer to the general public or to specific sectors of it, including “intermediaries” who in turn serve their own “publics”.
- Legal has been no easier for PLE providers to define than “law” has been for legal theorists. In practice, the focus of PLE tends to be on “black letter law”. But the scope of PLE is not limited to either substantive law or legal procedures. It covers the broader terrain of legal philosophy, theory, history, law making, the administration of justice, social policy-development, and reform. PLE also ventures into the domains of dispute resolution, restorative justice, and other means of achieving justice. It can also encompass the lived experience of people who have been exposed to the application of law and the impact on their lives.
- Education signals that PLE services are not limited to the provision of information. They encompass the development of knowledge and understanding about our justice system and the examination of alternative justice processes, including those of other cultures. PLE programs assist participants to develop skills in engaging with the justice system whether as concerned citizens, professionals, litigants, witnesses, or jurors. They also cultivate attitudes that enable Canadians to interact effectively with their justice system.
Public Legal Education – like any concept, public legal education is often understood by looking at what it is NOT – it is not legal advice, not legal representation, and not continuing legal education for lawyers.
Definition by activity
Since PLE is not easily defined, it has come to be associated with the activities of the organizations that have expressly taken on PLE mandates. Those activities range from one-page pamphlets to interactive online electronic services; from mock trials for high-school students to community-based law-reform activities. Those who practice PLE continue to challenge themselves to extend the limits of the field, crossing boundaries, serving as agents of change, and animating imaginations.
Resources of Interest
Documents of Interest
CFCJ 2003 Issue 6 Summer, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice newsletter