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 Advancing social justice.
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.
Facilitating citizenship development and social inclusion
PLE can play a major role in helping people participate fully in society.
Understanding rights and responsibilities
PLE equips people with an understanding of their rights and responsibilities in a variety of setting, including their residence, their family, their workplace, and their community. It also prepares them to play important roles in our justice system, including serving as parties to legal actions, witnesses, jurors, and advocates for reforms. PLE can help to ensure the legitimacy of our form of democracy under the rule of law.
Promoting rule of law
The concept of the rule of law lies at the heart of our form of democracy. However, understandings of the concept vary. At its most basic level it asserts that no one is above the law but does nothing to ensure that the laws themselves do not discriminate in favour of a particular person or class. As that suggests, public support of the principle of the rule of law is at least in part dependent on public support of the laws themselves. While educating everyone about all laws is an impossible task, PLE can provide a basis for advancing a conversation of the values to be reflected in our laws and how differing interests are to be balanced.
PLE intended to address these purposes tend to take two forms.
Citizenship education for newcomers
PLE for newcomers to Canada tends to emphasize the rights and responsibilities that immigrants and refugees need to know to settle in. Topics might include basic information on residential tenancy, family, and employment law. However, some resources also explain features of the Canadian legal system, including a simple explanation of the underlying principle of the rule of law.
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.
… More about law-related education
Enhancing the administration of justice
Increasing confidence in the justice system
This argument for this benefit of PLE rests on a belief that the public will be more supportive of the justice system if we explain the critical role law plays in promoting personal well-being and social stability.
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 the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice at 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.