The objective of this study was to examine the definitions, goals, and role of PLE in the provision of legal services to clients in Ontario legal clinics. After defining PLE and legal literacy, the author gives a brief history of legal aid in Ontario, specifically community and specialty legal clinics, and reviews the relevant literature. The study used interviews with clinic lawyers, community legal workers, and board members and an analysis of funding applications to collect data. The findings revealed that PLE was considered integral to delivery of legal services to clients and is fundamental to legal clinics. But PLE is defined by providers more as an activity rather than a process or strategy. The goals of PLE appear to be simply giving information with little thought to empowerment of clients or the value of learning or critical thinking. No legal literacy or alternative legal services models are being implemented in Ontario legal clinics.
The study indicates that most Ontario legal clinics are practicing traditional PLE (where the goal is to inform about and support existing legal system) for the general public and low-income users. But for some low-income or disadvantaged groups, delivery is different– providers are trying to respond more to specific needs, giving community legal education with long-term goals of client empowerment. Most clinics lacked any emphasis on theories of adult education or learning. The study recommends that legal training incorporate education on strategies of a rights-based approach. The paper also touches on funding for PLE, community needs assessment, the “legal liberal model”, role of information and knowledge, innovative formats, self-help, and terminology in Ontario clinics. The author recommends that service providers look to other international initiatives for help and that legal information be part of the general public’s knowledge base.