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What GI Joe Taught Me About Access to Justice

Back in the 80’s – well before the availability of such innovative distractions and time wasters as the internet, Netflix, DisneyXD or PVRs – the late afternoon viewing options for pre-teen couch-potatoes were pretty sparse. Worse still, most of what was available often tried to impart important life lessons to impressionable young minds. Anyone remember the ABC After School Specials?

Some of those lessons must have stuck, because I can no longer hear someone say “now I know” (or some such) without reflexively adding the GI Joe inspired response: “and knowing is half the battle!”

So it goes with access to justice and attempts to understand the law in times of need. Several Slaw contributors and countless others elsewhere regularly grapple with how to identify, define and address a variety of access gaps the overcoming of which would presumably meet our common goal of improving access to justice. For today, I am going to focus on the “knowing the law” gap – after all, solving that is half the battle, or so I’m told.

Without the benefit of a serendipitous encounter with a friendly GI Joe team member* whenever I, my neighbour, a recent immigrant or anyone else for the matter needs an appreciation of legal rights, how can one come to know the law? With over 1.6 billion results to a Google search of the word “law”, it’s not as if we lack for sources to explore. In many cases, even knowing our legal rights may be of little consequence if we lack the resource, opportunity of ability to use that knowledge to bring about a just result.

That said, no matter what barriers remain in the overall pursuit of improving access to justice, we must continue to do all we can to ensure knowledge of the law is accessible to those who seek it out. In this regard, I have always had a particular admiration for the PLEIs – a.k.a the providers of Public Legal Education and Information.

The continuum of public legal education and information providers is wide and I strongly encourage readers to provide in the comments links to the many dozens of resources I will fail to mention here. What most if not all of the providers along the continuum have in common is the mandate to provide information to the public in the time, place and form that meets their needs. This holds whether we are talking about Clicklaw in B.C. or Community Legal Information Association in P.E.I. Organizations such as these are on the front lines of the access to justice cause. In the Susskind view of legal services, one might say they are building the fence at the top of the hill while leaving the task of managing the ambulance at the bottom to others.

They are not new, but there is a growing urgency to their function, in particular their ability to promote self-help from people before or instead of relying on more expensive parts of the legal system. Lawyers would do well to take note and to find ways to promote and support these initiatives. Many do already. But even among lawyers with an awareness of the presence and mission of the PLEIs, a dismissive attitude about the benefit of public legal education as a means of improving access to justice can surface. You probably wouldn’t have much difficulty thinking of a colleague who shares this wag’s opinion, spoken in response to presentations on British public legal education initiatives:

“I’m not sure telling schoolchildren what their legal rights are will solve the legal aid funding crisis,” said one senior figure of a well-known pro bono charity.
(Legal profession braces itself for a surge in DIY lawyers after funding cuts, Guardian UK print and online posted Nov 08, 2011)

The attitude misses the point of the PLEI initiatives. Public legal education can no more solve the legal aid funding crisis than can solving the legal aid funding crisis lower the costs of access to justice for the middle class. No one solution and no one agency can address the range of legal issues and challenges a person can face in time of need. All are necessary. More importantly, the value of each potential solution can be enhanced if access to all elements the overall system of the administration of justice are brought within closer reach of more people.

It is evident by the volume and quality of contributions and comments that Slaw readers and contributors are also strong proponents of raising the level of understanding and quality of engagement of those around them. As speakers, authors, educators and lawyers, they give their time and talents in ways big and small, public and private. If I could impose one more task on them, it would be to use their prominence within the legal community to draw more support and attention among their fellow professionals to the work the PLEIs.

Why focus on fellow professionals if the broader goal is access to justice for all Canadians? Because the PLEIs themselves are particularly adept at getting their message out to the public, although they would benefit greatly from the institutional support the legal community could bring to enhancing and promoting their efforts. This idea of lending legal support to the organizations best suited to support the public finds favour in a newly released UK report on access to justice for lay litigants. See, for example, paragraph 58 of the report:

Justice is secured through a system, with the courts (and tribunals) at the apex, and effective public legal education and access to advice and assistance at the base. Lawyers play a key part in that system. In any particular situation access to lawyers may be key to meaningful access to justice and the courts. In other situations access to justice may be achieved without needing to reach the courts, and access to lawyers may or may not have been key to that achievement.

Get more lawyers and legal institutions recognizing the value the PLEIs bring and hopefully what follows is greater support of their work from their funders and new links between their work and that of others in the network of legal information and service providers.

The PLEIs know how to distil and present complex legal issues in simple and accessible language and they have also been among the pioneers in adapting to social media and internet-based communication tools. Spend a little time on Educaloi, YourLegalRights, one of the LawCentral sites or some of the others and you will see sterling examples of straightforward guidance, often delivered in creative but always accessible ways. The PLEIs have also been very good at raising the bar nationally, with regional events in Montreal (Colloque D’Educaloi – October 2010) and Vancouver (Justaclickaway – February 2011) culminating in fascinating collections of insights and best practices in the delivery of public legal education and the use of new media tools to do it. Check out the Just a Click Away Conference report released in September 2011 – you won’t be disappointed, and I daresay you will be energized by the potential.

Let me return to where I began – knowing is half the battle. Different groups are doing different things to improve access to justice in this country. This is a multi-faceted and big enough challenge that I am supportive of all efforts and don’t consider it one of those situations where people should stop doing “A” in favour of “B”. However, I do consider the benefit of supporting and promoting the PLEIs to represent one of the greater opportunities to engender a very positive difference in return for the investment.

How many thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours does the legal system save every time someone visits one of these trusted sources and reads an authoritative article on what to do if you are evicted? Or on how to cancel an order placed online? Or on the nature of their rights as an employee?

The knowledge gained might be sufficient to give a person control of her own issues, and at minimum represents an important first step in acquiring the knowledge to know when dig further or when to move forward with professional help. But no matter what, the knowledge imparted unquestionably has the potential to reduce the strain elsewhere in the system thereby improving the odds that other efforts in support of access to justice will meet with greater success.

There. Now you know.

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*If you happened to meet a random Joe team member, you would be best served if that member was Scarlett, who, in addition to being pretty handy with a cross-bow, also happens to be a lawyer.

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