Accessing Justice

Supporting patrons with legal information needs

June 1, 2022

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Imagine this scenario: A patron shows a reference librarian a letter from an attorney representing the county and asks, “What law authorizes the county to take a person’s land?” The patron says she has read statutes that might apply, but the attorney does not cite any law and she cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The librarian suggests that the patron check out websites for legal aid organizations and LawHelp.org.

This scenario is an example of both a reference transaction and an access-to-justice issue. Many people do not have easy access to an attorney and will come to the library seeking legal information. Librarians are not authorized to give legal advice, but they can direct patrons to useful organizations and resources.

According to Jessica Steinberg, associate professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., 70–98% of state cases dealing with areas of civil law such as family law, domestic violence, landlord–tenant, and small claims issues involve at least one unrepresented litigant. Money is often an issue. According to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, 80% of criminal defendants cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Such people experience what the Legal Services Corporation has called the justice gap, or “the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs.”
Librarians may provide access to legal information, but they may not give legal advice. The difference is important. Legal information is general knowledge, facts, or aids regarding the law and the legal system. A statutory code, the official website of a state legislature, and a research guide are all examples of legal information.

Legal advice, on the other hand, is the application of law to facts; it is part of the practice of law. For example, tenants who want to know whether they may deduct from their monthly rent the cost of repairing a window that their landlord refused to fix are asking a legal question. While librarians may not answer legal questions, they may direct the patron to resources of interest.

Some of those resources might be subscription databases that are cost-prohibitive for individuals; libraries, however, may offer patrons access to these databases onsite. In addition, legal self-help websites and open-access databases that provide the full text of laws are useful. Other helpful resources include:

  • Nolo.com’s Legal Topics
  • American Bar Association’s
  • Find Legal Help
  • Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute

Librarians may create lists of self-help legal resources for distribution with a disclaimer that inclusion in the list does not imply endorsement by the library.

Patron privacy is always important, but it’s especially key when it comes to legal questions. While technically there is no librarian-patron privilege, the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics mentions a librarian’s duty to respect a patron’s right to confidentiality and privacy. The Association’s Privacy and Confidentiality Q&A provides practical suggestions for keeping personally identifiable information (PII) confidential. Maintaining confidential computer sign-up sheets, registrations, and research notes, as well as limiting the PII collected, are all good strategies.

Libraries, especially those open to the public, should be sensitive to the needs of patrons who are experiencing the justice gap; mindful of keeping PII confidential; and knowledgeable about freely available resources that patrons may access.

This article was adapted from “What Can Librarians Do to Facilitate Access to Justice?” a presentation that Ward gave at the 2019 Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction conference.

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