The People’s Law: Free Legal Help and Legal Research on the Web
by Carol Ebbinghouse | Law Librarian, California Second District Court of Appeal, Los Angeles, CA
Over the last 5 years, since the last time I broached this topic, 1 free legal resources on the Internet have gotten better and better. More and more legal information has come onto the Web for nonlawyers. Certain jurisdictions have risen to the task of improving access to the legal system for the people who can least afford good legal representation.
Many sites and organizations have demonstrated a high level of commitment to providing quality legal services and information for the lay person in English as well as other languages.
First the Legal Problems, Then the Solutions
Do you or someone you know need legal information and/or advice? Perhaps the landlord has given your friend an eviction notice? Or maybe you think you had better write your will or set up a living trust before you embark on your dream vacation abroad? Or perhaps you have just discovered that someone has defrauded your aging parent out of thousands of dollars? And then there’s that black sheep of the family who calls you at midnight to tell you he has been arrested?
Well, I hope you live in California, because according to the Los Angeles Daily Journal, 2 “Not long ago, people who couldn’t afford an attorney in California and who fell through the financial cracks of legal aid were left to handle their civil legal battles on their own. Now, California is leading a nationwide trend toward providing assistance for self-represented litigants, a move most judges and legal aid advocates say is increasing access to justice.” These self-help resources are described as “a real service to people who for one reason or another have chosen to represent themselves. … They are far better prepared and can get through the system in a far more efficient way.” On the other hand, the article notes, “some in the legal aid community, which helped to establish many of California’s self-help centers, fear the proliferation of these programs will aid in the institutionalization of a second-tier justice system for the poor.” In response, one voice protested, “You don’t tell hungry people that you won’t cook them a hamburger because you would rather give them a steak.” Whether self-representation is the best, or just the only way one can access the legal system, the fact is that many cannot afford an attorney. And services are emerging to meet this need.
California is indeed in a leadership position with in-person self-help centers 3 with lawyer assistance, online resources 4 from the courts, state agencies, and nonprofit organizations 5 — even links to legal help in other states [http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/lowcost/otherstates.htm].
Who Do We Have to Thank for All These Services?
Certainly the government — state and federal, legislative, regulatory, and judicial branches — have accomplished a lot recently. At the beginning, the information they provided on the Web was more like raw data; it needed mining by professionals. But now their services are becoming genuinely helpful, easy to use, and include search capabilities that are more intuitive — even Google-based. Now they are working with other organizations, providing real online help. For instance, I-CAN! is one service that helps the lay person with such tasks as helping users “create court paperwork and educate themselves” about how to proceed in their own legal matters. I-CAN! modules operate on touch-screen kiosks and workstations at locations easily accessible to low-income persons such as courthouses, legal aid offices, community centers, women’s shelters, and libraries. This site contains a video guide that helps the user select and fill out appropriate court forms in civil matters such as Domestic Violence, Unlawful Detainer, Paternity, and more. I-CAN! is free of charge and is available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. I-CAN! was developed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and is sponsored by organizations including: Legal Services Corporation, Judicial Council of California, State Bar of California, Orange County Superior Court, Orange County District Attorney, Orange County Public Library System, Disneyland, Cities of Irvine and Fullerton [http://www.icandocs.org/newweb/].
Bar Associations have also taken a role in helping legal consumers. The American Bar Association has its “findlegalhelp.org” at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/home.cfm, organized by state. It carries a special page for finding free help at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/faq_freehelp.cfm. In addition, the ABA has links to legal information for consumers. Most state bar associations produce information for lay people and put it on the Internet, such as the brochures available at http://www.calbar.ca.gov.
Law Libraries Step Up to the Plate
Professional librarian organizations have been particularly active — especially the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), its chapters, and other affiliates. After all, part of AALL’s Vision Statement states, “Since the ready availability of legal information is a necessary requirement for a just and democratic society, AALL and its members advocate and work toward fair and equitable access to authentic current and historic legal information, and educate and train library users to be knowledgeable and skilled legal information consumers”[http://www.aallnet.org/about/strategic_plan.asp].
AALL has a number of initiatives in this area, including the Access to Electronic Legal Information Committee (AELIC), which establishes standards for government Web sites (relating to currency, full text, links to table of contents, searching by citation, links to other information, navigation buttons, etc.). The full Local Government Website Evaluation Criteria can be found at http://www.aallnet.org/committee/aelic/localcrit.html, along with the evolving Evaluation Worksheet for assessing local government Web sites.
AALL and its chapters actively campaign for federal, state, and local governments to provide more information, improve existing government sites, preserve permanent access to legal information — whether born digital or in print — promulgate freedom of information, and other information-related issues. The individual chapters report on and contribute to the discussions, e.g., the Chicago Association of Law Libraries report at http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/call/publications/pubaffr0905.html. In addition, law librarians constantly examine ways to improve and meet unmet needs and self-evaluate their operations. An excellent example is the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin’s “Report on the Public’s Access to Legal Information and Assistance in Wisconsin” produced by the Public Access to Legal Information Committee chaired by Paula Seeger, dated 2005 [http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/llaw/paliguide/PALIFullReport2005.pdf]. This report covers everything from the locations of public, academic, and special law libraries in the state and their print collections, electronic resources, and legal assistance programs, to the cost of photocopies at the various sites. It gives specific recommendations to improve public access to legal information at each type of library.
The AALL has had special programs on serving non-English-speaking patrons at AALL annual meetings. Ellie Slade, in an account of the 2005 meeting, “Acento on Serving the Hispanic Public Patron,” described a tour of Bexar County Law Library, where “our tour guides explained that BCLL typically fields about 50 percent of its reference questions from Mexican American pro se litigants, usually in the area of family law. BCLL passes out free English and Spanish booklets for pro se litigants that explain garden variety legal issues, such as eviction, divorce, wills and other common matters.” This was especially relevant to Ellie, who noted, “In my job capacity as a legal reference librarian at the San Diego County Public Law Library (SDCPLL), I provide legal information to the local judges, attorneys, pro se litigants and citizens. In any given week, approximately 30 percent of my reference requests at SDCPLL may come from pro se Mexican American or Hispanic patrons who need assistance with a variety of legal issues. Similarly, county law librarians in other southwestern cities and large eastern metropolitan areas, also routinely assist a high percentage of Hispanic patrons with legal research requests.” (Check http://www.aallnet.org/sis/sccll/ for the State Court and County Law Libraries Special Interest Section and the Fall 2005 issue of SCCLL News for Ellie Slade’s article.)
Law libraries of all kinds are providing guides to researching the law. For example, most law school and public law libraries provide research guides and references to other resources and post them to the Internet. More ambitious law school libraries include Washlaw [http://www.washlaw.edu], Washburn School of Law’s mega site and the incomparable Legal Information Institute from Cornell Law School [http://www.law.cornell.edu]. Individual public law libraries have Web sites with links to even more resources, for example, Los Angeles County Law Library’s Web site [http://lalaw.lib.ca.us/]. In addition, local chapters of the AALL have created materials for the lay person; for instance, the Southern California Association of Law Libraries (SCALL) has produced Locating the Law, “intended to provide basic information about California and Federal legal materials: What they are, how they are organized, and how to use them.” This guide, edited by Karla Castetter, is in its fourth edition, and can be purchased in hard copy for $5 or accessed free on the Internet at http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/scall.
However, true outreach through the Internet is possibly best exemplified by California’s “Public Law Library” site [http://www.publiclawlibrary.org]. This Library Services and Technology Act grant funded site is produced by the Council of California County Law Librarians. “Your Public Law Library” provides legal links divided into categories to help the researcher find the information he or she requires. “General Legal Research links connect you to several Websites that are good at organizing law-related information by subject. These Websites are often a good starting point for the beginning researcher. Links are then divided into California legal research and Federal legal research. See the Mini Research Class page for more information on where to start your research. For local law questions involving a city or county, refer to the Local links. If you are looking for an attorney, consult with the Legal Directories links. And, finally, if you are looking for court forms, or court rules, check the links provided under Forms and Rules links.”
And on top of all of the work to just assemble the materials, the site provides links to information in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, French, Japanese, and Korean!
Another site that assists people in filing forms for family law, small claims, eviction, and guardianship/probate is the San Mateo Superior Court-EZ Legal File Site — and it includes many California counties [http://www.ezlegalfile.com/index.jsp].
Law school libraries, state, court, and county law libraries are all very active in providing legal information and research guides to the public. Many provide legal clinics to assist pro se do-it-yourselfers or those needing representation. There is also the Pro Se Law Center, which has a searchable directory of Pro Se programs nationwide [http://www.pro-selaw.org/pro-selaw/court.asp] and don’t forget state bar pamphlets in different languages for consumer information [http://www.calbar.ca.gov/state/calbar/calbar_generic.jsp?cid=10180&id=1392].
If you can’t get a lawyer for personalized advice, “ask a law librarian” — at least in California. By far the most ambitious free Internet outreach service by librarians is the “AskNow” program’s law librarian service — where someone can “Get help from the librarian in real time.” The County Public Law Libraries in California picked up the mantle to provide outreach to their constituencies. Imagine having a law librarian at your disposal, right when you have a legal information question — in your own home or office! Available at http://www.publiclawlibrary.org, “AskNow’s law librarian service lets you ask questions and get answers, in real time, right here on the Internet, from live law librarians throughout California. The AskNow law librarian service is available:
8 a.m.–5 p.m. & 6 p.m.–8 p.m.
8 a.m.–6 p.m.
8 a.m.–5 p.m.
Live Reference staff are not available on Holidays
When you click on the AskNow button on this page, the law librarian who answers your question may or may not be a librarian at your local law library. When the law librarian cannot answer your question by referring to free Internet resources, you may be referred to your local public law library.”
Some legal problems seem simple, but are not. Others seem complicated, but by understanding alternatives to trial, may be resolved quickly. One of the problems with do-it-yourself law is that legal questions are rarely just legal. They involve law and technology, or law and science, or law and just about every field known to man. That is one reason why I find law librarianship so exciting — it isn’t just law.
For example, a friend of mine had a recurring problem with the transmission in her car. Although she knew to go to our state’s Web site to find California’s lemon law, I simultaneously went to http://www.firstgov.gov and found a recall notice for a defect in the transmission in her car’s year, make, and model. Armed with that, she went back to the dealer for the free recall work. When they declined to replace the transmission and provide her with a free loaner car, she turned everything over to the legal plan offered through payroll deduction by her employer. Because she had all the documentation of the repeated problems, all the proof of service work, and the manufacturer’s recall notice filed with the feds, the attorney prevailed with a letter and a few phone calls.
Lesson One : Always check both state and federal sites.
Lesson Two : If you have a pre-paid legal services benefit through your job (like my friend), or through your professional association — enroll and take advantage of it every time you have a consumer and/or legal question. You will never be without free (or, actually pre-paid) legal advice. In short, you will always have an attorney at your disposal — and you’ll know whom to call with your “one free phone call” should your life start turning into a Law & Order episode!
Here’s another example. Perhaps a company has defrauded your aged parents out of several thousand dollars. Perhaps the company has gone bankrupt and/or the perpetrators have run off with all of the money to a country without an extradition treaty. Don’t give up!
Lesson Three : Think of more than just a lawsuit. Chances are that the perpetrator of a fraud on senior citizens has no money left to sue for. So search for victim compensation 6 funds! If you help the state prosecute the perpetrator, there just may be compensation. California’s Web site even identifies state agencies that will intervene on your behalf, such as the Attorney General, Department of Corporations, and many others [http://www.ss.ca.gov/vcfcf/vcfcf_fraud_resources.htm]. The same goes for unethical attorneys — because most bar associations have a victim compensation fund. Before considering a lawsuit, consider arbitration, mediation, and other alternative dispute resolution services as well; they are cheaper and significantly faster than a lawsuit. Check your state’s Web site and the state bar association’s site, as well as local law schools that might have a legal clinic (another source of free legal advice). If it is a consumer complaint about a product or service, the Better Business Bureau [http://www.dr.bbb.org/] has links to their arbitration and other services.
Would I want to rely solely on what is available free on the Internet for my legal research? Of course not. But then I wouldn’t rely solely upon LexisNexis or Westlaw, the fee services on the Internet, either. Given that, however, if I didn’t have a pre-paid legal plan through my work and couldn’t afford an attorney, the free sources on the Internet are a great place to start. Certainly a lot of background research — especially factual and regulatory — can be done to gather evidence, look into the types of remedies available, and work with law librarians (in person at court libraries or through Internet “ask a librarian” sites) for help in 1) identifying reliable and up-to-date sites, 2) navigating the search mechanisms of the various Internet sites for legal research, and 3) identifying legal assistance programs in your area providing free or sliding-fee scale attorney services.
If you have a straightforward task (small claims, family law matter, some consumer issues), then you have the option to represent yourself, or at least get the background information to communicate effectively and efficiently when you do speak to an attorney — be it legal aid, paid on a sliding scale, a pre-paid legal services attorney, or a specialist that you hire on your own.
Just remember that legal information on the Internet is usually second rate; the first rate services cost — a lot. The free sites may be clunky to use or nonintuitive, or may only have legal sources from the last 10 years — or less. They may not be current at all — even years out of date. Question everything and make sure you use an “official” version of legal information (cases, codes, regulations, etc.). Double check your information on more than one site to verify it.
Things have improved a great deal, but the Internet — especially “free information” sites — are still governed by the great rule of life: caveat emptor.
1. Ebbinghouse, Carol. “Sidebar: Portals to the Future of Legal Information,” Searcher, vol. 9, No. 7, July 2001, pp. 10+, in which I listed sites for legal dictionaries, forms, lawyer directories, and other types of legal information; and “Sidebar: Medical and Legal Misinformation on the Internet,” Searcher, vol. 8, No. 9, October 2000, pp. 18+, in which I counseled readers on what to look for in a reliable legal information site, and when to run away.
2. Anat Rubin, “Better Than Nothing, But Good Enough?,” Los Angeles Daily Journal, vol. 118, Dec. 27, 2005, pp. 1+.
3. See Kathleen E. O’Leary, “Lawyerless, But Not Alone,” in the Fall, 2005 issue on page 14, or go to http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/reference. Don’t miss the notes on the JusticeCorps program (p. 34), for another initiative to help self-represented litigants using trained volunteer college students who receive grants for their work. See also http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/programs/justicecorps.
4. See the Court’s Self-help Center at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/ and for myriad local and information links (my printout was 33 pages) on topics as diverse as alternative dispute resolution, California taxes, and federal immigration law, go to http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/additionalinfo/links.htm.
5. Law Help California [http://www.LawHelpCalifornia.org] is a prime example of a blended funding project — with cooperation by the California Indian Legal Services Public Interest Clearinghouse, Legal Services Corporation, the State Bar of California, a variety of legal aid organizations and DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, a law firm — all helping low-income Californians solve legal problems, with resources in multiple languages.
6. In California, check out http://www.ss.ca.gov/vcfcf/vcfcf.htm for the “Victims of Corporate Fraud Compensation Fund,” as but one example.
Finding Legal Advice and Assistance
Find Legal Help (from the American Bar Association)
Use this site to locate legal help in all 50 states. It includes self-help information and lists of free legal help.
This legal site for consumers and small businesses provides general legal information to help people understand their legal rights on over 125 legal topics, but it does not substitute for personal legal advice from an attorney. View FreeAdvicefor your own personal, noncommercial purposes, AS IS, subject to their disclaimer and conditions of use. Be sure to read the disclaimer at http://law.freeadvice.com/resources/conditionsnew.htm.
This site claims to be the “the world’s largest free database of legal questions and answers. Find answers to over 100,000 previously asked legal questions or ask your own free questions from our network of over 3,500 law firms in more than 35 countries.” Read the disclaimer at http://www.lawguru.com/cgi/bbs/user/disclaimer_terms_of_use.html.
LawHelp “helps low and moderate income people find free legal aid programs in their communities, and answers to questions about their legal rights.LawHelp is your gateway to America’s nonprofit legal services providers.”
ACORN Resource Center
A Native American seeking legal assistance might visit this site for self-help and legal education materials.
Pro Se Law Center
Designed as a resource center on self-representation in civil legal matters, the purpose of the Pro Se Law Center is “to provide a collection of materials and resources that can be used to create legal service delivery systems that are based on the concept of ‘pro se’ or ‘self’ representation within federally funded legal services programs, courts, pro bono programs, and other community-based programs. … This resource center contains a searchable Directory of Pro Se Programs operated by legal service providers.”
Self Help Support (State Justice Institute)
This site provides “Resources for Self Represented Litigants: Legal Aid Services, Online Legal Information, Court Forms, Self Help Centers and links to State Court Websites.”
Legal Sites in Foreign Languages, as Well as English
http://www.consumersunion.org — Spanish
Derecho.Org — Buscador de Derecho (Spanish-language law search engine)
http://www.hg.org — Heiros Gamos, with 60 different language displays
http://www.icandocs.org/ — with help in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese
http://www.lawhelpCalifornia.org — links to 14 languages
http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov — English
http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/espanol/ — Spanish language option
http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/languages/ — information in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese
http://www.peoples-law.info/Home/PublicWeb — People’s Law Library
http://www.publiclawlibrary.org — information in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, French, Japanese, and Korean
The Mega Sites Covering Multiple Jurisdictions
CataLaw: Meta Index of Law and Government
Consumer’s Guide to Legal Help on the Internet
Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute
Derecho.Org — Buscador de Derecho (a Spanish-language law search engine)
Federal legislative documents
Findlaw Internet Legal Resources
Free Legal Forms
Free Legal Forms
How to Research a Legal Problem (AALL)
Internet Legal Resource Guide
KentWeb’s Guide to Substantive Legal Resources
Law & Policy Institutions Guide
‘Lectronic Law Library
Meta Index for United States Legal Research
Municipal Laws Online
Net Lizard’s Law Guide
Nolo Law Books
Official City Sites
State Legislative History Research Guides (Indiana U. Bloomington)
State & Local Government (Library of Congress)
State and Local Law
Washburn Legal Research on the Web
Criminal Information Sites
Very few sites exist that relate primarily to criminal law and those that do
usually refer users to public defender offices. Of the few, I noted the following:
* http://www.Probono.net which recruits volunteer attorneys and law firms to work in such practice areas as: Asylum law, death penalty, human rights, and prisoners’ rights.
* http://www.llrx.com/features/wrongfulconviction.htm is a feature article by Ken Strutin, “Wrongful Conviction and Innocence Resources on the Internet,” which compiles a wealth of Internet resources. LLRX.com, [http://www.LLRX.com], published by a law librarian, is in its 10th continuous year of publication with over 100,000 individual readers each month. It is certainly
worth searching by anyone looking for nationwide and state-by-state lists of resources on legal topics, even criminal ones.
Sites Specific to California
According to California Legal Advocates, the online community of the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC), there are more than 100 legal services programs in California alone. California attorneys interested in providing pro bono (free) legal services can sign up at this Web site” http://www.calegaladvocates.org or http://www.probono.net (lawyers serving the public good—in many states, not just California).
Californians needing legal information should go to http://www.lawhelpCalifornia.org. Nationwide, LawHelp.org aims to help low and moderate income people find free legal aid programs in their communities and answers to questions about their legal rights. One can click to legal help and information in English as well as finding links to resources in 14 other languages! There are over 500 referrals to free legal aid and court services, sliding scale legal programs, and lawyer referral services. The site also hosts links to over 700 self-help legal materials. The broad legal topics include housing, public benefits, health, consumer and small claims, individual and civil rights, disability, life and estate planning, families and kids, protection from abuse, work rights, safety and discrimination, immigration, seniors, and native American issues. For criminal problems, the site carries links to the public defenders. The many subtopics link to self-help resources and information to help locate local attorneys who specialize in issues presented by legal problem areas including legal aid (free or low-cost, based on qualifying income), court programs (providing general advice to help you navigate the court system), and lawyer referral services (for those who do not qualify for legal aid) to help find private attorneys.
The http://www.LawHelpCalifornia.org is provided as a public service by the Public Interest Clearinghouse [http://www.pic.org], Legal Services Corporation [http://www.lsc.gov/], the State Bar of California’s Office of Legal Services [http://calbar.ca.gov/state/calbar/calbar_generic.jsp?cid=12509] Access and Fairness Programs, among others. The Public Interest Clearinghouse has a directory of California and Nevada legal services programs, including links and contact information.
Link to the Law Librarian Web page for the “Ask a law librarian legal questions in real time” service of the Council of California County Law Librarians’ Your Public Law Library site [http://www.publiclawlibrary.org].
Two Other Examples of Good State-Based Legal Services
The Maryland Legal Assistance Network (MLAN) sponsors the People’s Law Library at http://www.peoples-law.info/Home/PublicWeb. Non-English materials appear in Russian, Tagalog, Spanish, and several Asian languages.
In addition to linking to Internet resources, directories of mediators and other dispute resolution practitioners, and attorneys, there are links to self-help programs for those who want to represent themselves in court. The homeless resources are outstanding, including emergency food assistance, shelter, health and social services information. They encourage people to use computers at public libraries, friends, and Peoples Law Library Outreach Sites available throughout the state.
Wisconsin’s State Library has provided a series of Internet legal information pages [http://wsll.state.wi.us] with links to sources of state, federal, and tribal law information. I like their “Legal Topics” page [http://wsll.state.wi.us/witopicindex.html]. They also provide information on legal and government forms — so important for the do-it-yourselfer. In addition, the page on Historic Documents links to the American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library of the Library of Congress, among others [http://wsll.state.wi.us/lawhistory.html]. This is a civics, political, and legal junkie’s paradise. The site also has an excellent list of Internet Legal Research Guides to help the lay person and online user understand the system, what happens, and how to research it [http://wsll.state.wi.us/legalresearch.html].
Finally, the Wisconsin State Law Library has an e-publication called WSLL@Your Service [http://wsll.state.wi.us/newsletter/] that updates readers on everything from hour changes at the library, new Internet sites, new titles in the library, technology tips, and other current information.
For other state sources, you might start at:
National Center for State Courts
Pro Se state-by-state listing of court self-help resources.