In Canada, PLE grew out of a felt social need to make legal knowledge more widely accessible. If people were to properly order their legal affairs and access their legal remedies, they needed to know much more about the law than they did.
In establishing this new form of legal service, PLE organizations experimented with a variety of types of activities to see just what PLE could do for individuals, families, organizations, communities, and society as a whole. In the process, they discovered that PLE could also help the justice system itself. Over time, PLE has come to play a more prominent intermediary role between the public and the legal system, helping the justice system to better understand and engage with the pubic. Many PLE practices can be adapted for use in reforming the justice system and in helping the legal community provide better services to their clients.
At this point in its development, there are four general objectives of PLE in Canada.
In the early years, PLE was touted as improving access to the law. However, by the mid-seventies, the terminology began to shift to improving access to justice. That shift carries with it the suggestion that the legal system, or the processes otherwise supported by PLE, will, in fact, delivers justice. However, our legal system makes no such promise. At most, it attempts to ensure that people experience procedural justice. Even that is contentious as the system is criticized as providing disproportionate justice for people with the means of using the system to its utmost.
Adopting the term access to justice rather than access to the law offers PLE more scope. It puts the notion of justice into the domain of PLE, legitimizing PLE that raises issues of justice – whether procedural, substantive, or social justice. PLE directed toward issues of social justice is discussed more fully in the segment on Facilitating social justice.
In improving access to justice, PLE activities have four objectives. They seek to help people…
Prevent legal problems
One of the earliest claims made on behalf of PLE is that it can play an essential role in assisting people to prevent or avoid becoming enmeshed in legal problems. Examples include carrying out tenancy inspections, making a will, avoiding being taken in by consumer scams and frauds and taking action within time limits. While there is evidence in support of this function of PLE, we lack the kind of large scale evidence that shows the impact of public health initiatives
Recognize legal problems
PLE is promoted as playing a useful role in helping people identify the legal dimension of situations they may encounter in their lives. The expectation is that people will be able to act in a more timely way if they recognize early signs of an emerging legal matter.
Seek effective assistance
Hand in hand with recognizing that one has a legal problem is knowing what to do about it. PLE services and resources often include a directory of relevant services. These are meant to guide people to the first point of contact with someone who can help them assess their situation and refer them to other relevant resources and services as appropriate.
In the early years of PLE, we were criticized for ‘turning people into their own lawyers”. Today, PLE is often expected to be able to provide people with the resources they need to take some or all of the steps necessary to address a legal matter.
Facilitating citizenship development and social inclusion
One of the major branches of PLE responds to the opportunities in the formal and informal curriculum to equip students to effectively engage with the legal system. Law and social studies curriculum are obvious places for this type of content. However, law-related education promotes a variety of skills including communication and critical thinking as well as pro-social behaviour. As a result, law-related education also appears in courses such as language arts, drama, health, and physical education.
PLE’s claim for advancing social justice varies with one’s understanding of the term social justice. Its meaning covers a range of activities from single acts of charity through to radical redistribution of power and resources in a society. Some see the ability of PLE to equip people with information as promoting social justice. Others use the term to refer to social action to change some aspect of the law or social condition.
Enhancing the administration of justice
Increasing confidence in the justice system
This argument suggests that we can better explain the critical role law plays in regulating society, public will be more supportive of this institution.
Lowering the cost of legal services
This argument suggests that the costs of legal services can be reduced if the public is better prepared to access services and remedies. Most recently, this argument has been used to justify supplementing or replacing legal aid services with cheaper public legal education resources. Self-represented litigants are particularly keen to use PLE resources as much as possible.
For more information on the cost of civil justice, go to http://www.cfcj-fcjc.org/
Ancilliary benefits of PLE
In addition to helping to achieve justice-related objectives, PLE in some of its forms also contributes to developing communication skills, critical thinking, self-esteem, pro-social behaviours, and career-development.