Legal literacy for defending rights
Pubic Legal Education (PLE) is a relatively new concept in the international domain. It is used to describe a variety of services that are aimed at creating legal literacy among the general public through different innovative methods, which are able to reach their understanding. Although some forms of legal education for the non-lawyers or for the general public exist more or less in every parts of the world, they are often piecemeal projects limited to short time period or targeted to a small section of the population. A cohesive structure and a continuing effort to provide legal education to the public is not very common.
In the USA and Canada PLE had developed in the late 1960s as a part of their social reform movement. It has also been endorsed in some other parts of the world including countries like Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In the United Kingdom it has just began to emerge with the recent formation of the 'Public Legal Education and Support Task Force' (PLEAS Task Force). Compared to the developed parts of the world the concept of PLE is still unknown to many developing or least developed countries. Bangladesh is no exception to them. Although there are a large number of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in Bangladesh on different social and developmental issues, very few of their projects feature some characteristics of PLE. They are often carried out independently without any coordinated efforts among other similar projects. Also, there is lack of academic studies or research, which has focused on the international practice of PLE or has acknowledged its necessity in the context of Bangladesh.
How Public Legal Education can be delivered?
Worldwide PLE is delivered through a wide variety of mediums and there is no single or exact method that is followed for any particular PLE program. The methods may vary according to the need of the people or availability of resources of a particular organization.
Some of the common delivery methods in PLE are leaflets or pamphlets containing step-by-step legal information, street law program where law students or lawyers volunteer to teach some basic aspects of law to the community groups, popular theatre, telephone help lines, radio and TV programs, online e-resources and so on. It is indeed essential in any PLE program that the methods are designed in a way that is easily understood and received by the intended audience. In particular, in countries like Bangladesh where the literacy rate is very low, effective access to legal information and knowledge would require methods like popular theatres or face to face workshops.
The rationale for PLE
The principal rationale for all PLE activities is that since laws are for the people it should be made known to the people. If law provides a particular right or responsibility, those can only be fully exercised when people have the knowledge of their existence. The main goal of PLE is to make law and the legal system more accessible to the people by educating them about their rights and duties and increasing their understanding of the overall working of the legal system. Thus, 'in its broadest sense, PLE captures the essence of accessible justice'.
Also PLE works in favor of the disadvantaged, the poor and the vulnerable groups, as it empowers them with legal awareness, which helps them to stand against the social injustices that cause their situation. 'A general sense that wrongs can be righted for the individual and for communities can lead to a greater sense of social justice'.
PLE and its international practice
PLE had first begun in Canada as a part of the anti-poverty movement, which emerged as a response to the American war on poverty in the 1960s. It developed on the face of a need for legal information, felt by the common people or those otherwise disadvantaged who saw that the law was affecting their lives in a direct way and who demanded the law to be demystified and opened up to the average persons. Today PLE has become an essential part of the Canadian justice system. There is a national network of provincial organizations, which are the core PLE providing bodies in Canada. These organizations are operated with the sole agenda of delivering PLE. Each of these Core PLE providers receives annual funding from the Department of Justice of Canada.
A similar need was also felt by a number of other developed countries with a view to ensuring greater popular participation in the legal system and making the system work better with an informed citizenry. One of the features of PLE, that is common in most of these countries, is its emphasis on the disadvantaged people. Both in Australia and New Zealand the PLE provisions are primarily aimed at the poor and the marginal communities, those who need to know the law more than anyone to alter their situations in a positive way.
Unfortunately, despite of PLE being developed as a part of the anti poverty movement in Canada and having its focus on the disadvantaged communities in other countries; the concept is still unknown to many least developed parts of the world, which includes Bangladesh.
Relevance for Bangladesh
So far, there is no initiative by the government to introduce Public Legal Education through a comprehensive framework. Neither there is any organization, which works with a sole PLE agenda. Nevertheless, there are a number of instances where services like PLE have been provided by some NGOs, although those services were not branded as PLE they bear some resemblance with the international practices of PLE. But these are insufficient for a coordinated PLE structure. A number of these projects are short-term and due to funding constraints they are often not continued further. Majority of the projects, which are ongoing by the organizations, do not occupy the central attention of the organizations and form small part of their various other activities. Also, the number of targeted audience covered by those activities is not satisfactory. Most importantly, these activities, which have similar PLE nature objectives, are often isolated projects- they are conducted independently by the organizations without having coordination with other organizations that are conducting similar programs.
In order that the positive outcomes of PLE can be achieved fully, it is important to have a coherent and comprehensive structure of PLE in Bangladesh. An important initial step in that direction will be to create an independent organization having the sole task of introducing PLE services. This organization can first strive to build a PLE network among all the major stakeholders who can contribute to providing PLE in Bangladesh which may include legal professionals, academics, media representatives, corporate bodies, government representatives and foreign donor agencies. If this network is possible to achieve, this can lead to the formation of an independent working group which can then formulate a national strategy for bringing Public Legal Education in Bangladesh. The UK example is particularly important in this context, where a consultation among a number of key organizations led to the formation of an independent task force, which in 2007 had come up with a national strategy for PLE in the UK, with a view to consolidate the existing piecemeal PLE projects into a coherent structure.
Although it cannot be denied that to the many problems that Bangladesh faces today, PLE alone cannot be the single answer. Nevertheless, while ensuring legal literacy to the public alone cannot eliminate the causes of all injustices and disadvantages, together with other agencies 'it can play a vital role in achieving moments of Justice' and can effect a change in the conditions of people's lives. Above all, PLE can help to create a legally aware citizenry, 'able to interact with the justice system in a manner which best protects their rights'.
The writer is Faculty, School of Law, BRAC University.