New Study Supports the Wikibook Model of Public Legal Education

CRILF LogoBy Lorne Bertrand & Joanne Paetsch
Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family

Wikibooks are websites built on the MediaWiki platform, an open-source application that powers websites such as Wikipedia, Scholarpedia and the notorious WikiLeaks. Wikibooks are agile and highly adaptable, and are normally used to present large amounts of text from multiple authors in a digestible, easily accessible format. Clicklaw, a public legal education web resource run by Courthouse Libraries BC, has adapted the wikibook concept to provide plain language legal information to the public.

Unlike most MediaWiki websites that allow any user to add and revise content, Clicklaw Wikibooks use a unique development model in which potential contributors are screened by the Clicklaw Wikibooks team before being given editorial privileges. This collaborative approach allows several lawyers to contribute content and ensures that the task of maintaining and updating the material is not overly burdensome for any one individual.

In 2013, Clicklaw added JP Boyd on Family Law to its collection of wikibooks. The resource offers more than 120 webpages of substantive legal information, about 500 definitions of common legal words and phrases, links to hundreds of key government and non-government resources, and more than 100 downloadable forms for the British Columbia Supreme and Provincial Courts.

The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family has just released the findings of the first phase of its evaluation of JP Boyd on Family Law, conducted with funding from the Law Foundation of British Columbia and Courthouse Libraries BC. The evaluation used data from several sources to assess the use and usefulness of the wikibook, including: a pop-up survey completed by 546 users of the website; a follow-up survey of 142 users administered one week after completing the pop-up; and website traffic information generated by Google Analytics.

During the five-month data collection period, an estimated 63,000 users accessed the wikibook. Our evaluation showed that users consider the wikibook to be a highly informative resource. It is used both by members of the public and legal professionals, and many users had accessed the site on more than one occasion. Most users said that the wikibook is easy to use, they knew more after visiting the wikibook than they had before, and they would recommend the wikibook to others. Almost all users found the wikibook useful, agreed that they were able to find the information they needed quickly and easily, and were able to understand that information.

When asked what they liked best about the wikibook, the most common responses were that the website is easy to navigate, easy to understand, and very informative. When asked what they liked least about the wikibook, the most common comments were that, despite the significant breadth of the resource, it did not have the information they were looking for or the information they found was not presented in sufficient depth.

Interestingly, only one-third of users who said that they were currently dealing with a legal problem said that they had a lawyer. Most users with a legal problem said that the information in the wikibook helped them to deal with their problem and that the information would help them in the future.  Further, our findings suggest that the wikibook is being used by a large number self-represented litigants, as well as residents in smaller communities where access to legal information may be limited.

The second phase of our evaluation is currently underway and is examining the long-term usefulness of the wikibook. This study will look at whether the information users found in the wikibook actually helped them to resolve their current legal problem, and whether it provided them with the capacity to identify and deal with new legal issues.

The extremely positive findings of the evaluation support the continued use and further expansion of this innovative model of public legal education delivery. Users of the wikibook considered it to be an authoritative and reliable resource, and the fact that the material can be copied, saved and reused at no cost makes it an extremely affordable and portable educational tool. Other jurisdictions should give serious thought to adopting this model for the delivery of public legal education.

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