Over the forty or so years of PLE development in Canada, the environment in which it has operated has changed dramatically. But one of the salient features of PLE is that it is highly responsive to changes. Five major forces have shaped contemporary forms of PLE: Changes to the justice system itself, changes in public expectations, the impact of lay litigants on the system, the impact of the internet, and the changing nature of funding for the justice system in general and PLE in particular.
These forces alter the backdrop for PLE activities as well as providing new needs and opportunities for developing innovative PLE initiatives . For the most part, PLE advocates have succeeded in weaving PLE into the fabric of the Canadian legal tapestry. Many people within government and the legal community acknowledge the excellent work done by PLE agencies in helping people avoid legal problems, in providing access to our justice system, and in preparing people to assume citizenship responsibilities.
A more robust understanding of PLE by policy-makers and funders, thought, would enable them to make more effective use of PLE to increase the impact of their larger law reform, administration of justice, or legal service strategies. Including PLE providers in discussions when important decisions are being made about contemporary justice issues would enable PLE’s potential contributions to be assessed in the context of each particular initiative.
Recognition that PLE can only contribute in proportion to the infrastructure that sustains it is also necessary. The better the infrastructure, the greater the possibility of having an appropriate PLE tool at hand to meet challenges. Four elements are essential to a strong and stable PLE infrastructure:
- Communication, coordination, and articulation of PLE initiatives
- Research with respect to the theory and practice of PLE
- Professional Development for those who develop and provide PLE
- Stable, on-going funding commensurate with the expectations for PLE
Adapted from The Changing Face of PLE in Canada by Lois Gander.
Future Prospects for PLE in Poverty Law
Public legal education is part of the legal landscape in Canada. While it is not a replacement for direct legal services, it helps people recognize that they have legal problems, decide what to do about them, and take action. It helps extend the range of services that can be offered to the disadvantaged and marginalized; it helps build communities of interest and supports anti-poverty advocacy and equality seeking strategies. As part of a continuum of services, PLE is here to stay.
The basic relationship between the public and the justice system is changing. Not only will electronic technologies improve the efficiency of the current legal process, it will enable entirely new ways of solving what are currently recognized as legal problems. It is the responsibility of those currently involved in providing poverty law services to ensure that the interests of their constituents are well represented as those changes occur. They will do that directly through their own presence, and indirectly through the ways in which they assist their constituencies to become engaged in electronic telecommunications and the forms of justice it promotes. Each clinic must face this challenge squarely and decide what role it can best play.