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Online Law Primer 101: Untangling Online Legal Resources
Volume 44, Number 2 - March/April 2020

When I was the reference coordinator for a small public library, I never hesitated to answer any question a patron might ask at the reference desk. That is, unless it was a legal question. The discipline of law itself—awe-inspiring, yet unwieldy—was daunting. Even a seemingly simple question, which could be dictated by local, city, county, state, or federal laws or a combination thereof, would set off my, “Oh, where to begin?” thought process. When I was at the public library reference desk, I would find myself thinking, “Please, anything but a legal question.” So it must have been my natural curiosity as a librarian that led me to accept a job at the Kane County Law Library 6 years ago where, at the reference desk, it’s all law questions, all the time.

The responsibility of fielding legal questions is onerous. knowing that the unauthorized practice of law is, well, illegal. Librarians, therefore, must bravely forge ahead with the mantra, “I can lead you to resources and teach you how to use them, but I cannot interpret the law or recommend what forms you need.”

There will always be a demand for reliable, easy-to-interpret online sources that are free. As a county law library (think thrifty ), we spend our collection budget mostly on books. That is what our clientele prefers, so buying more than one online database overwhelms our budget. Small libraries, and even large ones, may not have legal databases or current resources about the law, considering the hefty price tag that is synony mous with legal resources. (One volume of a serial set may cost upward of $1,000.) Therefore, knowing what is not only free to use, but also useful as a legal resource, will help you strategize online tactics to make you a more comfortable legal searcher.

Start your search process with the basics

I recommend starting your search process with the basics. Begin with your state’s statutes (the current laws of your state) to determine if there is a statute governing the question. In Illinois, this collection of laws is titled Illinois Compiled Statutes and is freely available and searchable online. In my state, the Illinois General Assembly provides this information on its website ( Some states, like Arizona, use the word “revised” instead of “compiled” in the title, but both represent the collection of their state’s statutes. Online statutes are reliable sources for locating the law that governs the types of issues you are researching.

Sample Question

How do divorce laws differ between Illinois and Arizona?

Resource: Legal Information Institute (LII)
The Legal Information Institute from Cornell Law School provides links to state constitutions, statutes, and related legislative information. LII also provides judicial opinions and regulations for all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and affiliated jurisdictions.
Bonus: You can compare state statutes by selecting a topic.

Know where to find free, basic civil legal forms

Self-represented ( pro se) litigants often fill out the first forms they find in a search engine, not realizing that the forms they need may be state-specific, require accompanying forms, and are usually free. The couple who paid $400 online for their divorce packet from a for-profit company was extremely upset to find out not only were the forms they purchased from a different state than the one they were divorcing in, the forms they did need were freely available online from a non-profit company. Layering an unnecessary financial burden on an already emotional situation is both frustrating and avoidable.

Sample Question

I want to establish parental responsibility. Where can I find the forms?

Besides starting with your own circuit clerk’s website, these are good bets as well.

Resource: National Center for State Courts (NCSC)
The National Center for State Courts helps you find court forms by state.

Resource: Justia Forms
Justia offers browsing by state and category and even breaks down the list by county. Justia Forms also has a date addition column to show when the forms were last updated.

Resource: LawHelp Interactive
I use or recommend this tool every single day. In Illinois, the website is Illinois Legal Aid Online. Unfortunately, not al l states have portals developed for them yet, but if your state has one, you are lucky. This tool is user-friendly and, through an interactive process, asks the user a series of questions, then fills out and produces the needed forms. The main website will let you determine if your state has access yet.

Self-Represented Litigants
Litigants or parties representing themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney are known as self-represented litigants, or pro se , which is Latin for “in one’s own behalf.”

Know how to find free legal aid agencies in your state

Free legal aid agencies are a boon to legal researchers. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts found in its 2018 Annual Report that in this state alone, “over 90,000 cases were filed by SRLs [self-represented litigants], most commonly in Orders of Protection, Family/Dissolution, Miscellaneous Remedy, and Law Magistrate (including Landlord-Tenant disputes)” ( /2019/2018_Annual_Report.pdf). If you are wondering why this number is so high and how many self-represented litigants there are in your state, you are not alone.

Surprisingly, this is an incredibly difficult number to pinpoint. Many cases begin with attorneys and end pro se or vice versa. Also, there are shifting thoughts on how best to count self-represented litigant statistics—whether by case or by individual. Re gardless of the method, it is abundantly clear that more and more people are representing themselves in legal matters, most commonly in domestic and family law issues.

You may be wondering why so many people are representing themselves. The obvious answer is that many cannot afford to pay the high cost of hiring an attorney. What is not so obvious is why many others choose not to use an attorney. Often it is because they do not feel the cost is worth what they are trying to accomplish; more commonly, they have a distrust of the legal system or unrealistic expectations of outcomes. This is where we can help.

Sample Question

I cannot afford to hire an attorney, so how do I get help seeking child support?

You can find free legal aid programs in your state.

Resource: Legal Services Corporation (LSC)
LSC describes itself as “an independent nonprofit estab lished by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The Corporation currently provides funding to 134 independent nonprofit legal aid organizations in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Territories.”

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Ellen Schmid is a reference librarian and the webmaster for the Kane County Law Library & Self Help Legal Center in St. Charles, Ill. She serves as associate editor for the Kane County Bar Association’s magazine, Bar Briefs, and is a library trustee for the Geneva Public Library District.


Comments? Email the editor-in-chief:

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