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

First, if you aren't sure you'd answer yes to the statement above, or if you missed our last post, take a look at I Don't Answer Legal Questions at the Library it may help convince you.

So, now what? Once we’ve detected a legal issue or law-related question, we can proceed with doing what library staff does best: finding reliable and relevant information!

As information professionals, we can provide legal information to our patrons to try and get them started in a good direction with their questions. The good news is that there are many resources available online and in print that make this possible – it’s all about knowing where to look! Remember, we’ve created guides to help you with this work – you can find them under 'Reference Tools' on our website.

How do I approach the question?

A question may go a variety of different directions but the principles of conducting a reference interview still apply. Following some basic steps with a few key considerations in mind will help you to navigate these interactions with more ease.

Things to keep in mind:

Law-related issues are often overlapping and can be significantly life-affecting. It may be a question about setting up a small business or resolving a minor dispute with a neighbor. Alternatively, it could be about someone’s housing security or the safety of their family. Heightened emotions can be a play, which can be complicated by the unfamiliar language of law and the difficulty we all have in processing information during moments of stress.  

One approach you can take to providing information is the ‘bite, snack, meal’ approach. This is one practical way of addressing the tensions around these interactions, as well as a way of managing expectations and setting professional boundaries around the amount of time things may take.

Start small, build on that. Deliver information in bits so as not to overwhelm, help people get their bearings, and let them know this will likely take time. It can also help buy you a bit of time to keep digging. Remember, providing this information can empower your patrons to better understand their legal situation and be more prepared to take next steps.

Navigating the legal reference interview

1: Set the tone and manage expectations

Aim for a tone of kind and respectful neutrality. This can work to reassure someone that may be feeling anxious or stressed by grounding them, and it can also help you to manage their expectations more easily.

Explicitly articulating reassurances like “that sounds stressful, let me see what I can find that may help – if I can’t, I'll do my best to find someone who can” helps to dispel some of the tension, fear, or anxiety someone might be feeling, which helps people to get to a place where they can think a little clearer and take in the information they are hearing.

For more information on setting boundaries and managing expectations, check out our newly revised Legal Information and Legal Advice Guide.

2. Clarify the question

Law is another language and culture, and few people have the language or knowledge to be able to clearly articulate what they’re looking for. Here are a few tips to help to clarify the question:

Ask short open-ended questions, such as:

  • “Can you tell me a bit more about what you’re looking for?”
  • “What sort of information were you hoping to find”, and
  • “Have you already looked anywhere? If so, where?” 

Then you can narrow the focus of the question, which will help identify whether the question is about the actual law or the legal process for next steps or (often) both.

Once you have a clearer idea of what they are looking for, you can paraphrase and summarize just to make sure you’ve got it right, and to help make sure they feel heard.

3. Find and suggest available resources

This is where the bite, snack, meal approach comes in again. You can start broader and narrow down your resources based on how your patron responds to your questions and the options you have provided.

  • Once you’ve identified the area of law, see what you have access to in your print and online collections.
  • Ask them if they prefer one format over another and if they might need a little guidance with online sources.
  • If possible, give them a quick demo, but if you’re on your own or too busy, you can give them a print source such as a Legal Aid booklet to look over while you help other patrons, and invite them to come back afterwards.
  • If they are in a hurry, you can offer them something they can take home, like a pamphlet or booklet, or depending on where they are at in their search process, something more intermediate like a Clicklaw WIkibook or another more advanced text book in your collection.
  • If you’ve identified a print resource, but don’t have it in your library, call us! Courthouse Libraries BC may have it, and we may be able to work something out with you to provide access.
  • If your patron is seeking advice or more advanced legal services, explore referral options (e.g. Clicklaw HelpMap, PovNet’s Find and Advocate tool, Unbundled services, Justice Access Centres, Access Pro Bono).

Clicklaw is a great go-to source to find online both resources and referral options. Check out our newest guide: Clicklaw – An Introduction. This downloadable pdf gives a quick overview of how to use it and its key features, including the HelpMap.

4. Follow up

If you get the chance, ask them what they found useful (or not) in the information provided. If they struck out, is there something else you can try? Remember rarely – if ever – are all the answers found right away. Generally, it is a process. Start with one issue, go from there. As one question tends to lead to others, let them know they can come back with any further questions.

If you get stuck, call us at 1-800-665-2570 or 604-660-2841! You can also refer the patron our way – we are happy to provide reference support over the phone directly to you, or your customer.

While our libraries are currently closed to the public, we are offering remote services via phone and email. Our library staff is knowledgeable about legal research and are happy to help Mondays through Fridays between 9 – 4. If your question comes in after hours, please leave a message or email us at librarian@courthouselibrary.ca and someone will respond as soon as we can!

As always, if you have any questions please contact Megan Smiley or Rachel Carlson at lawmatters@courthouselibrary.ca