A Plea for More PLEI

Law Day is being celebrated across the country this week to mark the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on April 17, 1982. The Canadian Bar Association introduced Law Day one year later and has since been promoting events to mark it across the country.

In Winnipeg, Law Day celebrations took place this past Sunday with an Open House and tours at the Law Courts Complex, a special sitting of the Citizenship Court, student mock trials, legal information sessions and displays.

I’ve been a Law Day volunteer a number of times, greeting members of the public at the entrance to the courts, assisting in the planning committee or staffing an informational display. On each occasion, I’ve been reminded how much there is that people don’t know or understand about the law and our legal system. At the same time, I have seen how great the interest is in getting a behind the scenes look at what goes on in our courts.

It seems a shame we only offer one such opportunity to the public each year. While I appreciate the vast amount of effort that goes into planning a Law Day event, the benefits to those who attend are worth considering. This event creates opportunities to:

  • clear up misconceptions about the law and legal process
  • inform about substantive legal issues
  • promote the rule of law in society generally
  • enhance the profile of professionals in the legal system
  • increase access to justice.

Law Day is an excellent example of a PLEI activity. Department of Justice (Canada), a major funder of PLEI programs across the country, defines PLEI as:

“…an activity that seeks in a systematic way to provide people with the opportunity to obtain information about the law and the justice system in a form that is timely and appropriate to their needs, but does not include advocacy or representation on behalf of individuals, nor the provision of legal advice.”

Although there is a single designated PLEI provider in each province, many organizations deliver activities that fall within the definition, often with the assistance of lawyer volunteers though not exclusively. Law students, advocates and others can be easily-equipped to deliver accurate, relevant and timely information about the law and justice system to those who need it.

The continuing need for clear and understandable legal information, whether provided via publications or programs, is repeatedly referred to in Access to Justice Metrics, the latest discussion paper from the Canadian Bar Association’s Envisioning Equal Justice initiative. For example, in outlining the results of community consultations held on the issue of access to justice, the author notes that:

Community members stated that people first needed to know their rights before they could enforce them. Some people said they believed they had rights, but just did not know what their rights were. Lack of information was a repeated complaint; the provision of legal information was a repeated recommendation. Many believed that public legal education is necessary, both generally and in schools.

The importance of public legal education and information in meeting access to justice needs was likewise an important theme arising out of the Manitoba Bar Association’s 2010-11 Access to Justice Town Hall Meetings. In the Report and Summary from those consultations, it is noted that:

Information about the law needs to be provided in clear, plain language. Not only should it be available in the information seeker’s own language, but it must be provided without jargon or complicated terminology. One participant stated that he needs to know “Where do I go, what do I fill out, how do I get this resolved.”

As we mark this 30th anniversary of Law Day, it’s a good time to turn our attention to the question of whether public legal education is sufficiently resourced in Canada. Those who provide such programs, whether supported by funding from Justice (Canada), provincial governments, law foundations or community-based funders, typically do so on the most minimal of budgets, relying heavily on both the pro bono efforts of the legal community and collaboration with other PLEI providers.

The national umbrella organization of PLEI providers, PLEAC (Public Legal Education Association of Canada), functions as a “nation-wide, member-driven association committed to improving access to justice through public legal education.” They promote collaboration among members across the country as a means to maximize the impact of member’s PLEI activities.

Local organizations like Community Legal Education Association (CLEA) in Manitoba operate efficiently and effectively, but are not able to fully meet the PLEI needs of their communities. CLEA’s motto is apt: Unknown rights are not rights at all. Their work in providing public legal education and information is essential to meet the spectrum of legal needs that comprise access to justice, but they cannot do it all.

If we want meaningful access to justice in Canada (and I am assuming we do), addressing the gaps must begin with education and information about substantive law and legal processes. Filling those gaps in a meaningful way will require more than just additional volunteer resources; we also need to allocate sufficient financial resources to strengthen this end of the continuum of legal needs.


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