Legal Information, Legal Advice, and Access to Justice

by Shawn Friend

Dear Readers: This is the final regular post from Shawn Friend. Shawn has a been a dedicated regular contributor to the RIPS Law Librarian Blog for three years (the maximum allowed under the blog guidelines), and it is with a damp eye that I bid her farewell as a member of the blog’s staff. Her posts are always lively, interesting, and timely. Her service to RIPS is much appreciated. Sincerely, The Editor.


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We all get the questions – anything from a public patron asking for help with a case to a student who has a ‘friend’ with a legal question to (for those working in courts or government libraries) customers who want you to tell them if their legal conclusion is right. This is one of the areas of patron services that can be most challenging.

For years, law librarians have struggled over where to draw the line between legal information and legal advice. Librarians, especially those in public libraries, want to make sure they are not giving legal advice. For dual-degreed law librarians, the concern about the unauthorized practice of law may loom large. But realistically, what is the concern? In the end, all the questions that can’t be answered boil down to two types – “Is this right?” “What should I do?” Those questions cannot be answered with research. But almost anything else can.

The concern about legal advice has now run up against a heavily competing interest – access to justice. The two do not necessarily have to be competing – the training of librarians should focus much more heavily on what they can do. AALL’s white paper on this subject perhaps states it best: “[a]nother challenge regards the ongoing need to train librarians, especially public librarians, about the unauthorized practice of law from the perspective of permissiveness rather than restrictiveness.”

As more and more people have less and less ability to pay an attorney for things like divorce or child custody modifications, there will be an increasing need for basic assistance in finding and understanding legal information. Many states have guides for court clerks or other court personnel. There are blogs regarding these issues (Access To Justice is an excellent one). This is an issue that all but a few librarians will need to face and which stirs up considerable debate.

Librarians in courts, those working with self-service centers, those who are at academic institutions that open their doors to the public, and public librarians all have a role to play in ensuring access to justice for all litigants. Even firm librarians can make a difference in the access to justice movement (AALL’s white paper, above, has excellent tips on what firm librarians can do). As legal information professionals, we know how to locate authoritative information and what the primary sources of law our in the jurisdiction. As teachers and trainers, we have a unique perspective on delivery methods for information itself and for teaching how to fund further information. As technology mavens, we know how to organize information so that it can be found and what tools can be used to reach litigants who do not have adequate transportation or who live in a rural area.

With those skills, law librarians are well-suited to help with providing legal information to the large numbers of patrons who need it, not for school or to write articles, but because it impacts their economic situation, their children, or their freedom. And really, isn’t that what we are here for? To make sure that legal information gets to the people that need it, in a format that is workable.

What has your library done to assist or make policies for public patrons or unrepresented litigants?

About Shawn Friend

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