Reliable and current public legal education and information (PLEI) resources can help self-represented people prevent and resolve legal problems in many situations.
What is PLEI?
PLEI stands for public legal education and information. While it may seem self-explanatory, one description of what is does is as follows:
PLE provides people with awareness, knowledge and understanding of rights and legal issues, together with the confidence and skills they need to deal with disputes and gain access to justice. Equally important, it helps people recognize when they may need support, what sort of advice is available, and how to go about getting it.” (See “Effectiveness of Public Legal Education initiatives: A literature review” by Dr. Lisa Wintersteiger et al)
The first sentence above describes how PLEI is meant to help. The second sentence is a caution, hinting that there might be a line in some legal disputes where information will not be enough and advice from an expert (usually a lawyer) is needed. It might not always be easy to see where that line is, especially for a participant trying to solve a legal problem. It will depend on the unique facts of the case and the unique abilities of the person dealing with the problem.
Only lawyers can give legal advice
In Alberta, and in most provinces across the country, only active, insured lawyers can practice law, or give legal advice. “Active” means the lawyer is a member of the Law Society of Alberta and must follow a strict Code of Conduct. “Insured” means the lawyer carries insurance to cover situations where they make a mistake. And to “practice law” means to look at the facts of an issue and advise the client on what they should do in their specific situation.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, including for self-represented parties. However, non-lawyers can still provide legal education and information.
See CPLEA’s Legal Information vs. Legal Advice: What is the difference? info sheet for a deeper look at the distinction between legal advice and legal information.
How PLEI can help
Getting legal advice from a lawyer is not the only solution to a legal problem. Good legal information and education can also help.
Not everyone has a burning interest in legal topics. As a result, most people will likely only start looking for legal information about a topic when they have a problem. This can create pressure for the person if they must learn things quickly.
Using a methodical approach to legal information is important. See CPLEA’s Seven Steps to Solving a Problem booklet for some tips.
So, what can PLEI do? It can:
- help you clearly define what your problem is. This can prevent you from wasting time and effort solving problems that you do not actually have.
- help you decide what to do next. PLEI will not usually tell you what to do (that would be advice), but it will tell you about the law that applies to your situation and what it requires of everyone in a similar situation.
- help you understand procedure (for example, see CPLEA’s Tips for Going to Court info sheet)
- help you understand the laws that apply to your situation (for example, see CPLEA’s extensive resources about the laws that apply to families and relationships in Alberta, including several booklets and accompanying videos)
- reduce anxiety and build your confidence
- show you where to go to learn more
- help you understand advice your lawyer or other professionals are giving you
- help you decide when you need professional help
PLEI organizations like the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA) also have grander goals. Our ‘big picture’ view is that PLEI is a prevention tool. It is usually easier and less expensive to avoid problems in the first place than it is to deal with them after they happen. By broadening people’s knowledge about legal topics in general (increasing their legal capability), we hope to reduce the number and severity of legal problems that occur. We want to assist individuals by helping them prevent legal problems, by raising their awareness of their rights, and by raising awareness of services and supports available to them.
At the community level, PLEI organizations aim to help people become better citizens. We also try to improve the systems and laws that people must work within. A core belief we hold is that PLEI can improve both access to justice and the quality of justice available to people.
Where to get PLEI and how to tell if it is good
Many organizations in Alberta provide PLEI and most have websites. You can find lots of information at www.cplea.ca as well as on the websites of other specialized non-profits and agencies, local legal clinics, the courts, government departments and agencies, Legal Aid Alberta, and the universities.
Most people start with an online search. Use search terms that make sense for your situation. It is important to narrow your results down and to think about the quality of the information you are looking at. The internet will give you useful information mixed in with lots of information that is wrong, out of date, or applies somewhere else but not in Alberta. Check out CPLEA’s Is it Reliable – 6 Clues to Good Legal Information Online info sheet for more tips.
When PLEI might not be the complete answer
PLEI cannot solve all legal problems. It will not be a complete solution if:
- Your case involves a company that you own, as only lawyers can represent companies.
- Your case is legally complex, especially if it involves arguments based on conflicting case law. Again, some people will be more capable of dealing with complexity than others.
- Your case requires appearing in court or before a tribunal, and you do not have the confidence or skills to represent yourself. People are often capable of much more than they think, as you can always gain knowledge and skills (including from PLEI). Whether you can increase your capabilities in the time you have is a judgment call only you can make.
- It is too traumatic or worse, not safe. In cases where there has been intimidation or violence, it is helpful to have someone between you and the other party.
- Things are happening too quickly for you to deal with. The civil court system is not fast, but in some situations, there may be multiple court applications and processes going on at the same time. Whether this is your opponent’s tactic or just a necessary part of the case, a lawyer can make this easier to deal with.
- There is little or no PLEI available about the problem you have. PLEI does not exist for every conceivable problem. Generally, PLEI resources are available for ‘everyday legal problems’, the kinds of problems that most people are likely to encounter during their lifetimes, especially those problems commonly faced by people in disadvantaged groups. If your legal problem is one-of-a-kind, you likely will not find PLEI that deals with it.
- When you have bad facts. PLEI cannot solve this problem and neither can a lawyer. But a lawyer can share openly and honestly about your chances of success in your case. That advice can help you pick the least harmful course of action.
If your case falls into one of these categories (and there are others), you would benefit from help and advice from a lawyer. And where to get legal advice is a topic for another article – stay tuned!
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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