Community Outreach in a digital world: the People’s Law School responds to Covid 19

If you can stand on the same street corner long enough, then things that go around tend to come around again. The wonderfully named People’s Law School in British Columbia began with the enthusiasm of law students to democratise law in the early 1970s. It lead the world in public legal education sufficiently to star in a collection of global initiatives publicised by the Legal Action Group in the mid 1990s, ‘Shaping the Future: new directions in legal services’. Now we have an annual report that covers the organisation’s adaptation to the ravages of Covid 19. There are a number of elements to this but let us concentrate on one with global potential: webinar delivery of legal information and education.

The People’s Law School was radical in its intent but conventional in its delivery. Much of its delivery was through physical classes. These were clearly effective and its then director, Gordon Hardy, reported in ‘Shaping the Future’ on their performance under Federal scrutiny: ‘ In 1980, the twelfth year of our existence, the Federal Department of Justice conducted an external evaluation of our free law classes, The survey produced satisfying conclusions, including these: 83 per cent of class participants … felt that they had a better understanding about the role and function of the legal system in Canada; 92 per cent felt they had a better chance of avoiding future legal problems’.

These classes were brought to sudden halt by the emergence of the Covid 19 pandemic. ‘And,’ says its annual report ‘since we couldn’t continue with our in-person classes, we launched a new service we were working on—webinars—sooner than planned. In the first six weeks of 2020/21, we delivered four webinars on: Covid and employment rights; employment benefits; returning to work during the pandemic; and settling an estate.’ The report notes that the four webinars were attended by 1244 participants which, as it proudly says, is ‘an excellent kickoff”.

If you are interested in the detail of these webinars, videos of them are available on the People’s Law School website – the webinar on worker’s rights is one example. The format is pretty simple – preserving a degree of control, interactivity and response. You bring in an expert on employment rights; provide a chair person; solicit pre-session questions; prepare some good visuals; promise answers to additional questions on the website later; put the video up on the website as well. 

The webinars do not take place in a vacuum. They are integrated with other digitally available provision. If you can bear to go on Facebook then a chatbot, ‘Beadle’, will help answer your queries (if you are interested in this, you can catch a recorded webinar on its operation). But there is also information, provided in bite size sections, on the website. This is nicely presented with a date of its last revision; an estimate of the time it takes to read; and the identity of the reviewer linked to a short biography. So, for example, the information on ‘Coronavirus and Benefits for Workers’ was reviewed this month; takes an estimated 11 minutes to read and was reviewed for legal accuracy by Kevin Love who, we learn is a lawyer with another not for profit organisation formed in the 1970s, the Community Legal Assistance Society. This is nice transparency but it also helps to individualise the information in an exemplary way.

Alas, the People’s Law School website announces that it is sorry but it has ‘no upcoming events at this time’. Hopefully, this will change and new ones be developed. Because, online zoom sessions provide a way in which legal providers in the access to justice field can continue community outreach in a safe and new way during the pandemic.  They are the equivalent of the increasingly prevalent webinars for professionals but aimed at ordinary people. This must surely represent a way in which community based and orientated organisations can adjust to the new realities of the pandemic. Not everyone will, of course, be able to get access but all you need is a smart phone and wi-fi access. Exploring the possibilities of digital public legal education in this way must represent the equivalent of the pioneering analogue work by the People’s Law School and the rest of the public legal education movement of the 1970s. 

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