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PLEI Organizations in Canada: Their Unique Role and Contribution

Meaningful “access to justice” – such that all people in Canada can access the justice system and effectively participate in it – requires that those who are governed be aware of and understand the laws that apply to them. People in Canada gain an understanding of “the law” that applies to them through many channels: the media, schools, community agencies, information centres and libraries, government communications, friends and families, and a broad array of websites.

Canada is fortunate to have a relatively robust sector of organizations that specialize in building awareness and understanding of the law and related skills that, together, equip people to take action. Sole-purpose public legal education and information organizations, or PLEI organizations, play a pivotal role, delivering an impact that goes well beyond their size and budget.  

Here are some of the unique features and roles of PLEI organizations in 2018:

  • PLEI organizations are set up, and have the skills and expertise, to be responsive to the needs of the public or groups of the public – a “user-centred” approach. As smaller, community-based organizations (reporting to independent boards of directors), PLEI organizations are nimble and creative in the ways that they address those needs.
  • An ongoing commitment to monitoring and responding to needs means that PLEI organizations produce education and information in ways that are most effective in meeting the high-priority needs of the public, such as the needs faced by newcomers to Canada, those who are elderly or disabled, those who live in poverty, and those of modest means who can’t access a lawyer.  
  • The smaller size and singular mandate of PLEI organizations means that they are able to actively promote and lead collaborative initiatives that can be used and adapted by many partners. PLEI organizations work with numerous legal, government, academic, and community partners.
  • Because PLEI organizations wear multiple hats – as legal organizations, community-based organizations, and literacy organizations – PLEI organizations are uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between the justice and community sectors. In particular, PLEI organizations work closely with a range of community organizations and other “trusted intermediaries”. Research shows that most people turn for help with their legal problems to people and places in their community that they trust – newcomer agencies, shelters, doctors, teachers, librarians, religious leaders, and newcomer agencies, to name a few.
  • As a bridge between the often impenetrable legal system and communities of people, PLEI organizations convey practical, useful information about how to navigate the justice system in the “real world”. PLEI organizations offer grounded information about how “the law” works – for example, the pros and cons of peace bonds and restraining orders (ease of obtaining, likelihood of enforcement). Their information reflects more than the laws set out in statute, regulations, and policies, and conveys essential practical guidance on how people interact with the law in their everyday lives.
  • PLEI organizations specialize in providing up-to-date information and education about the law that is easy for the intended users to understand.  The plain language expertise of PLEI organizations and their ability to design and disseminate programs and materials intended for specific users are reflected in the range of high-quality resources they provide, in response to various community needs. 
  • Depending on a community’s needs, the programs and resources may be provided in languages other than English and French and in innovative formats disseminated through accessible channels. For example, a PLEI organization in BC provides materials on human trafficking in several languages; one in Ontario offers resources in Arabic intended for newcomers. The Nova Scotia PLEI organization is innovating by developing accessible legal apps while, in New Brunswick, the PLEI organization offers workshops for people in the midst of family law problems. The Quebec PLEI organization is a leader in offering user-friendly online legal information. 
  • Because of PLEI organizations’ expertise and unique role – in particular, their broad and deep reach with on-the-ground community intermediaries – they are able to reach people facing legal problems with critical information early on, before their problem escalates. Their expertise in providing law-related programs in educational settings, for example, equips youth and others with the knowledge, skills and confidence that help them take informed actions that prevent the emergence of legal problems later on.

How PLEI organizations help the Department of Justice Canada (DOJ) achieve its goals

As discussed above, PLEI organizations play a unique, critical role in equipping Canadians to understand the law that applies to them. These organizations’ key features – community responsiveness, plain language expertise, and ability to innovate – enable them to boost the efforts and expand the reach of the DOJ. As described above, their work:

  • Directly supports and helps to build the capacity of marginalized communities,  including the diversity of newcomers to Canada, to understand the law.
  • Strengthens the ability of people in Canada who have lower or modest incomes – those who cannot access legal aid and cannot afford to pay for assistance from a trained legal professional – to participate in the justice system in a meaningful way.
  • Supports “legal literacy” and “legal capability”: a better educated and informed “public” who are equipped to prevent or minimize the severity of legal problems.

In these ways, PLEI organizations contribute to DOJ’s strategic outcome to provide “a fair, relevant and accessible justice system that reflects Canadian values.”  The impact of their work – which is enormous in proportion to the resources they receive – is set out in the reports provided by individual PLEI organizations.

 

Submitted by DOJ core-funded PLEI organizations