I Don’t Answer Legal Questions at the Library

Public libraries are critical in providing fair and equitable access to quality information on a wide range of topics. Among many library services, including readers’ advisory, technology training, children and teen services, collection development, and more, where does legal information fit in?

Legal information questions may take up a small percentage of questions at the public library and you may not yet have come across one. However, these types of questions may be more common than you think. Furthermore, they may start to pop up more than ever before given the impact of COVID-19 on so many aspects of our lives: housing, employment, government benefits, family relationships, and more.

What does a legal question look like?

Sometimes a legal question appears obvious: someone has brought in a legal form or document that needs to be filled in. They may have questions about accessing the technology to do this, or they may be looking for information that could help them fill out their forms.

However, during a reference interview, there may be other elements present that can lead to detecting a legal information question:

Do they describe a life event?

Life events can sometimes trigger legal issues and result in a need for legal information.

According to the “Saskatchewan Access to Legal Information Project:”

A life event is something big that happens in a person's life that changes their situation. For example, getting married, separating from a spouse or partner, having children, losing a job, starting to get income support from the government, or being evicted from a home, are life events.

“Everyday legal issues” may touch on various areas of law including consumer law, employment law, housing and tenancy law, and family law (to name a few).

What types of questions might this include?

Sometimes you can detect when a reference question begins to turn into a legal reference question when the patron describes a life event, change, or issue. Below are some examples of what this could look like:

  • “I’m having some issues with work…”
  • “I’m worried about my mothers will”
  • “My son’s ex won’t let him see the kids”
  • "My ex-partner has stopped paying child support as he's starting a new family."
  • "My employer is always commenting on my appearance."
  • "I have bedbugs and my landlord said he has no money to fix the problem."
  • “I need to use the internet to fill out this form”*
  • “I was told you can help me with my forms - I don’t know which ones”*

*Note: helping patrons access government websites and forms may be “procedural” and may not necessarily involve legal information reference work. However, legal issues may become present in the reference interaction. See the Helping Patrons with Court Forms guide on our website for tips on responding to the requests.

(Source: Some examples taken from the Saskatchewan Access to Legal information Project)

Why is this important?

According to a recent report by Legal Aid BC, for many “everyday legal issues,” individuals seeking non-legal assistance on a legal topic identified the “Internet” (38%) as a significant source of information. However, the 2020 report found that those using the Internet reported a significantly decreased level of success from a similar study conducted in 2018. The internet went from being rated as providing the highest level of effectiveness in getting the legal assistance people needed (89%) down to 6th place (66%). Services provided by humans occupy the top 5 spots, indicating a need for help from trusted people to make sense of the information that is available online.

Libraries are trusted spaces within their communities, and the Internet plays a significant role in the way people seek help. Public libraries play a critical role in ensuring greater and more meaningful access to information by providing access to the internet, technology, and both technological and information literacy.

We know from experience that the prospect of a legal question can be intimidating. However, there are plenty of reliable resources provided by British Columbia’s public legal information and education sector - especially online. See our Plain Language Legal Resources Guide for a topically organized list of go-to sources.

Essentially, a “legal” reference question is the same as any other reference interaction - it’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with resources online, in the library, and in the community! 

Need back up?

LawMatters is here to help support these connections and help you identify and use legal information resources. You don’t need to become an expert at legal research – leave that to us! We are here to be a part of your network and also help you build connections between legal resources and services within your community. If you are interested in training at your library, get in touch! All of our in-person training is on hold right now, but we will be offering virtual training sessions. 

Also, if you are looking for in-the-moment legal reference support, contact Courthouse Libraries BC! Reach us at librarian@courthouselibrary.ca or call 604.660.2841 or 1.800.665.2570. Trained law librarians are there to help – either you or your patrons – between the hours of 9:00 – 4:00 pm, Monday to Friday. If a question comes in after hours, send an email or leave a message and someone will get back to you ASAP.

As always, if you have any questions about the program or resources please let us know! Lawmatters@courthouselibrary.ca.

Otherwise, stay tuned for the next blog post in this series: 

Ok, Maybe I Do Get Legal Questions at the Library ... Now What?