In 1972, several UBC law students organized free law classes for the public, hosting them at the Vancouver home of one of the students, Diana Davidson. Supported by a federal government grant, the students held 35 classes, taught by volunteer lawyers and law professors. Over 3,500 people attended. The People's Law School was born.
Pioneers in public legal education
Buoyed by the success of these first law classes, we sought ongoing funding from the Law Foundation of BC, the Legal Services Society, and the federal Department of Justice. This funding allowed us to operate on a more permanent basis and hire our first executive director, Patti Pearcey. In 1974, we became a registered society under BC law under our first name, the Vancouver People’s Law School.
With this step, we became the first organization in Canada dedicated exclusively to educating the public about the law.
Over the following years, we pioneered many programs later offered by other public legal education organizations across Canada. Starting in 1974, we began to publish and distribute legal information booklets. The next year we began producing videos on everyday legal issues. The same year we recognized the need to provide public legal education to Vancouver’s rapidly-growing immigrant communities, and started delivering classes in Cantonese and Punjabi.
By 1982, we were organizing free law classes in more than 75 communities throughout British Columbia, publishing 16 easy-to-read booklets, producing videos for classrooms and community cable networks, and publishing articles in 60 community newspapers.
Expanding and evolving
In the mid-1980s, Gordon Hardy took over as our Executive Director, and led the organization for two and a half decades until he retired in 2010.
During this time, People's Law School continued to expand and evolve. In 1987, we moved into new premises at 900 Howe Street that included a classroom and a boardroom. Up until that time, we had operated out of a succession of small offices that did not allow us to host programs for the public at our premises.
In the mid-1980s, with support from the federal Department of Justice, we introduced another innovation: using live theatre performances to deliver public legal education. We performed a series of mock trials on impaired driving and shoplifting at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE), the annual summer fair held in Vancouver. The performances were enjoyed by 10,000 fair-goers, and 1,000 served as jurors, deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused person.
This interactive approach proved to be hugely popular: Justice Theatre continued to perform every summer at the PNE until 2000. In 1997, we took the Justice Theatre into schools. Teachers and students loved the dynamic approach to learning about how the law impacts the lives of young people. To this day, our Justice Theatre program continues to engage students on timely topics such as online bullying, hate crimes, youth gangs, and street racing.
Continuing to innovate
The 2000s ushered in profound changes in how people accessed information. People no longer needed to seek out inperson learning opportunities; they could find information on the internet. Attendance at People's Law School classes started to drop.
So we shifted our focus. Having launched our first website in 1997, we launched a new and improved site in 2005 featuring PDF versions of all of our booklets. In 2010, we teamed up with Courthouse Libraries BC to pilot a new approach to putting our booklets online. We converted A Death in Your Family into a Clicklaw Wikibook, a collaborative site powered by wiki technology. As compared to a PDF document, the wikibook offered an easier on screen reading experience and could be found in searches more easily. As well, the wikibook enabled a downloadable ebook format, a mobile version, and a print-on-demand option to be offered with no additional effort.
The wikibook pilot was a distinct success. Within the first year, the wikibook was being accessed over twice as frequently as the PDF version of the booklet. By 2016, we had converted 15 of our booklets into wikibooks, and our Clicklaw Wikibooks were attracting over 40,000 visits annually.
In 2017, we launched our fourth generation website, featuring content we developed specifically for the web. The content features interactive elements, step-by-step guidance, and practical tools such as downloadable templates. It continues a long tradition of engaging and empowering the public to take action to "work out life's legal problems".