Public legal education and information (PLEI) has a long history in Canada, but recently has received greater emphasis as a key component in the reinvigorated debate over access to justice. Three aspects of this debate are especially important to explain the increased interest in PLEI. The first is that a major catalyst for this debate has been the increasing number of self-represented litigants (SLRs). It is obvious that if SLRs are going to engage the justice system, they need some degree of legal education and information. Second, a central theme in the current access to justice debate has been the idea that there should be a culture shift in Canada’s justice system away from being organized around the provision of legal services towards a client-centred and problem-oriented model. PLEI can be seen as an essential ingredient for clients to take control over the resolution of their own justiciable problems. The third relevant aspect is the belief that a large influx of additional public funds is not sufficient to make progress on access to justice, which is convenient because it is unlikely that there will be an influx of new spending into the access to justice envelope. There is genuinely a widespread view among stakeholders that what is needed is a greater reliance on targeted effective low cost legal services. PLEI is certainly low cost in comparison to other legal services. The question is whether or not it is or can be effective in the evolving digital world where people face their everyday legal problems.
Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), under the direction of Julie Matthews, in the past two years has sought to establish itself as a research leader in Canada on PLEI. CLEO has established its own Centre for Research & Innovation, with funding from Justice Canada and the Law Foundation of Ontario. This past Fall it released its first research report, Public Legal Education and Information in Ontario Communities: Formats and Delivery Channels. The theme of the report is to identify “effective formats and delivery channels for reaching low-income and disadvantaged communities in Ontario with information about their legal rights.” The principal basis for the findings in the report is a survey conducted with 214 frontline workers at community legal clinics and community-based organizations across Ontario plus some follow-up interviews. The report characterizes these frontline workers as “trusted intermediaries” (p. 7) who have firsthand knowledge of their clients, their problems, and their experiences with PLEI.
The central point of the report is to emphasize that there should be multiple paths – formats and delivery channels – for the delivery of PLEI. This makes sense because of the diversity of persons utilizing PLEI in Ontario and the complex factors and barriers that affect the delivery of PLEI. In a sense, the fact that this point needs emphasis shows how pervasive the one-path-to-justice-fits-all thinking remains in Canada’s justice system. While in other fields of social services such as education, health care, and labour market support, the shift to a multiple pathways approach occurred in the 1980s, it has only been mainstreamed in the justice system in the past decade.
In concrete terms, this point is reflected in the findings of the report about the value of different formats for PLEI. Among respondents to the survey, over 90% reported that printed PLEI is useful or very useful for their clients. Printed PLEI is of course the traditional format for PLEI. It remains very important in Ontario because it is portable and requires little technology. But it does require some measure of literacy. The survey respondents reported that for 16% of their clients, who are some of most economically disadvantaged with justiciable legal problems in the province, literacy levels are a serious challenge to using printed materials. Fluency in the language of the printed material is also important. CLEO itself is very good about having printed material in many different languages, which is far easier to provide in a pamphlet than on say a live chat website. But there does seem to be a moving target here.
The report findings on PLEI in the digital world will likely attract more attention because this is a much newer area of research. It is well known that although Canada has one of the highest internet access rates in the world, lack of access is overwhelmingly concentrated in three segments of the population, the elderly, rural residents and the poor. The report finds that nonetheless uses of online PLEI in Ontario have increased significantly among low-income and disadvantaged clients. Although video, webinars, and audio formats are available online, text format is the prevalent format for PLEI. Social media seems to have still a very limited presence in PLEI and where it is present is targeted at principally youth. Likewise, more than half of respondents characterized mobile or smartphones as not useful.
The most important finding about online PLEI, in my view, is that it is difficult for many people to find useful PLEI online. Two-thirds of the survey respondents said this. The principal reason, in my view, why people are unable to find useful PLEI in the digital world is one of filtering. The virtue of traditional printed PLEI produced by organizations like CLEO is that information has already been filtered so that what is printed and distributed has been assessed for its usefulness. Internet engine searches do not filter in the same way. The filtering is being done at the level of individual websites, but the usefulness of this filtering depends on clients opening the right website.
The report notes that PLEI apps for mobile devices are not yet well developed in Canada. This is too bad. PLEI apps are often imagined as having the potential to directly offer legal information. But it is more pragmatic to envision a different kind of PLEI app. It seems likely that if there is to be a technical solution to the PLEI filtering problem in the digital world, it will involve the development of an app that sorts effectively and usefully between PLEI websites in the same way in which other apps have been developed that effectively filter out and sort websites for other types of non-legal services.
Lesley A. Jacobs, Executive Director, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice