Legal Aid, Courtworker, and Public Legal Education and Information Needs in the Northwest Territories

9. Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI)

9. Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI)

In general terms, most respondents felt there is a major need for more PLEI. Many respondents felt that when the Arctic Public Legal Education Association existed there was more coherent and extensive provision of legal information than exists presently.

9.1 Current PLEI Activities of the Legal Services Board

In April 1996, the Legal Service Board (LSB) assumed responsibility for PLEI in the Northwest Territories. Its main PLEI program is the Law Line, a call-in information line staffed by local lawyers. It operates on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and is available toll-free to residents of the Northwest Territories. It focuses on basic legal information rather than legal advice.

Legal information is also provided routinely by lawyers and staff in the legal aid clinics on an ongoing basis as part of their contacts with clients. Some Courtworkers do no PLEI, whereas others do occasional outreach in transition houses, colleges and/or schools, and distribute pamphlets about legal aid eligibility. The LSB also publishes a variety of pamphlets on individual rights and remedies, court proceedings and local resources. In March 2001, the LSB organized a justice symposium for delegates from communities across the north in regard to needs facing northern communities.

Tables 17–20 provide statistics on the operation of the Law Line over the past three years. Several observations can be made:

  • 52–55 percent of callers are women (Table 17). Insofar as criminal legal aid tends to serve a predominantly male population, the Law Line represents a modest contribution to filling the gaps in providing for women's needs in the NWT.
  • 42 percent of Law Line calls pertain to family matters, and 38 percent to civil matters, versus only 13 percent to criminal matters (Table 18). Thus the Law Line gives support in some of the areas less emphasized by formal legal aid coverage.
  • The sources of referral to the Law Line are predominantly justice system organizations (Table 19).
  • Where the actual community within the NWT has been identified by callers, 40–44 percent are from outside Yellowknife (Table 20). Thus, the Law Line has managed to achieve a reasonable representation of callers from smaller communities.

9.2  PLEI Activities of Other Parties

Respondents identified being engaged in PLEI as follows:

  • Private lawyers participate as Law Line volunteers, occasionally are involved in college or high school business classes, and routinely provide general information to their clients about the operation of the court process.
  • In a few cases, social agencies provide a venue for outreach activities of lawyers or Courtworkers, and a few provide basic information about court process to their own clients. Some have collaborated in the production of pamphlets (e.g., on peace bonds), and one or two identified individual PLEI activities (information provision on fines and on restorative justice). Many distribute pamphlets to clients (e.g., on child support, peace bonds, legal aid, support services for women). Victim service workers help clients complete victim impact statements.
  • RCMP personnel usually are active in school classes (e.g., DARE classes and family violence discussions) six or seven times per year, as well as more occasional information sessions with band/council meetings. Several respondents also mentioned one-on-one information and advice activities.
  • All JPs who were interviewed said they do not engage in PLEI activities. This appears to be a matter of policy, so that they are not misinterpreted and their objectivity is not brought into question.
  • Respondents most commonly said that they refer clients to the Law Line or to the Legal Services Board itself to obtain legal information. Other less frequent mentioned referrals are to Victim Services, the Internet (for pardon applications), Courtworkers, the Fine Option Program, and Social Services.

9.3 Effects of PLEI

The main benefits or effects of PLEI perceived by respondents are:

  • Knowledge and empowerment. PLEI helps enable individuals to own their own problems, to identify resources, in some cases to prevent problems through stronger knowledge of their rights or the governing law, and to know what was happening to them. Knowledge of alternatives to legal aid, such as diversion programs, was also seen as a potential benefit of PLEI.
  • Access. PLEI helps people know where to go. PLEI is seen in part as a conduit to more effective use of legal aid.

9.4 Needs

The four main areas of need for PLEI were considered to be:

  • Basic justice system and process information. There was a strong feeling that, especially in smaller communities, individuals do not understand the courts or the overall system of justice. This lack heightens the sense of victimization and cultural alienation that many Aboriginals feel towards the system. As noted in Section 3.1, this feeling is exacerbated by the speed at which processes occur in circuit communities.
  • Family law information (custody, access, child support guidelines, maintenance, common-law relationships, peace bonds, restraining orders). Some respondents felt that there is little interest in criminal law information unless a person is actually charged, but that individuals and communities are much more receptive to family law information because the nature of problems tends to be slower in developing and more protracted in resolution.
  • The zero tolerance policy toward spousal assault/family violence.
  • Basic information on legal aid coverage and application procedures.

Other areas of need for PLEI identified by respondents are:

  • Workplace issues.
  • Child apprehension.
  • Human rights/racism.
  • Individual rights within the context of Aboriginal structures.
  • Victims issues, generally.
  • Various civil remedies.
  • Crime and alcohol.
  • Broader issues related to sexual conduct (e.g., appropriate touching in schools and at workplaces).
  • Gun laws, wildlife laws.
  • Legal component to post-separation counselling.

9.5 Appropriate PLEI Delivery Methods

Several themes were addressed in regard to delivery methods:

  • More emphasis on outreach.
    • Individuals may be intimidated about phoning a lawyer but will speak to one if they attend at some local community service centre.
    • Several agencies said they either had offered, currently offer, or would like to offer the opportunity for clients to talk to lawyers or Courtworkers in their settings.
    • Several respondents emphasized that Courtworkers should be major vehicles for providing PLEI in the community, especially as a means to reach the Aboriginal population.
    • In the focus group, the concept of increasing PLEI done by community groups through collaboration with the LSB was discussed. It was felt that diversifying delivery of PLEI through a wider community network, to which Aboriginal individuals are connected, would increase the impact of information.
  • More emphasis on oral communication.
    • Many clients are not functionally literate, so oral communication such as radio, television, community meetings, band meetings, justice committees, youth gatherings, or personal contacts are more effective.
  • Need for plain language.
    • Written material needs to be expressed in less technical language.
    • Paralegals (e.g., Courtworkers) are seen by some as more effective intermediaries than lawyers.
    • Instruction of intermediaries should be done by lawyers who are good communicators.
  • Other simple measures.
    • Stapling to every charge an information sheet about legal aid services and/or court procedures.
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