As library workers dealing with legal information, too often we are asked for answers to specific questions or advice about what to do. You’d be right if you feel uneasy when this happens – we are not legally trained! As information professionals, our goal is to point our patrons in the right direction and find information, not know it.
Communicating our boundaries is not always easy, and with legal information, it can be hard for us to know what they are. The distinction between legal information and legal advice is not crystal clear, but these guidelines will help you determine what kinds of help you can offer and establish boundaries in positive way – after all, we can do a lot!
They are also provided to help you distinguish your own professional and personal comfort in supporting people looking for legal information or community-based help, thereby allowing you navigate these interactions with a bit more ease.
What we can provide:
Articulate what we can do to manage expectations and set boundaries. As library workers we:
- find reliable information, help navigate websites, provide access to computers, printers, and quiet working space;
- refer patrons to more specialized legal research support at Courthouse Libraries; and
- help find free or low-cost legal support services in the area or services offered remotely province wide.
Guideline 1: Find concrete resources
When a patron comes to you with a question, always point them towards a concrete resource – either in print or online – for them to consult. A few go-to options that provide good starting points are:
See the Plain Language Legal Resources guide for a list of good online sources organized by topic. This is a key part of the reference interaction – letting the patron decide what information and resources are relevant for them and their situation. When we find and present information, this helps the patron get a better understanding of their legal issue. Often, they are not even aware that these resources exist!
Guideline 2: Use your search expertise
Use your search expertise and explain what you are doing as you go. Struggling to find results? Check out the Guide to Legal Terminology – it may give you some more terms to work with. Share the results, explain the strategy you used to find them, and invite them to come back with follow up questions.
Guideline 3: Point to legal glossaries & dictionaries
If a patron asks you for help in understanding legal terms, court processes or court rules remember Guideline #1: Concrete resources! There are a range of online and print legal glossaries, dictionaries and resources explaining court rules and procedures.
Guideline 4: Offer practical help and technical support with court forms
If a patron is seeking help with court forms, we can offer practical help to locate, troubleshoot and use the forms, and help if they are having mobility or accessibility issues. We can also direct them to resources created to inform users how to fill the forms out. Check out Helping Patrons with Court Forms for more details on how.
Guideline 5: Refer to free, low-cost or community based legal support services
If a patron continues to ask for more help in understanding or applying the information, they are indicating a need for more specialized legal support services. Offer to help find someone better suited to provide advanced services or legal advice. A few quick options:
- Lawyer Referral Service (free, no income restrictions)
- Access ProBono (free, income restrictions)
- Unbundled legal Services (negotiable/lower cost)
Guideline 6: Use legal directories and remain neutral
If you are asked to recommend a lawyer or organization, remain neutral and point towards online directories.
- The Canadian Bar Association’s Find-A-Lawyer tool allows users to search by location, area of practice (e.g.: family law, personal injury, elder law, criminal law) and languages spoken.
- The Find-A-Lawyer page on the Unbundled Legal Services website includes a directory of lawyers in BC who offer unbundled services and a step-by-step guide on making the appointment and preparing for the meeting.
The following are a few scenarios meant to serve as examples of the types of interactions you could have with a patron looking for help with their legal issues. Each scenario outlines the actions you can take.
A patron is acting as an executor of a will and is trying to apply for probate. They ask you what procedure they need to follow and what forms they need to fill out.
- You can point to online legal information resources that will get them started in the right direction:
- You can refer to another agency or organization, such as:
- Courthouse Libraries BC for more specialized legal reference support
- Community based advocates or legal support programs, findable through the Clicklaw HelpMap.
A patron is confused about a word in their legal document and asks you to define it.
- You can:
- Direct the patron to a legal dictionary or a legal glossary. These can be ones in your print collection, or a trusted legal glossary online like the one in the JP Boyd on Family Law Wikibook.
- If you cannot find a definition in the resources available to you, refer the patron to Courthouse Libraries BC.
- Remember Guideline #1. Words often have different definitions in a legal context, so it’s important to use a legal resource to define any confusing terms.
A patron is working on their court forms on your computer. They say they are confused by the form, don’t know what to put in it, and wonder if you can do it them or look it over after they are done to make sure it looks okay.
- You can:
- Direct the patron to guides about filling out court forms, both online and in your print collection. See our Helping Patrons with Court Forms guide for links to some handy online resources.
- “De-mystify" the court form by looking up definitions or troubleshooting any technical aspects.
- Assist with any technical or usability issues they may be having.
- Contact Courthouse Libraries BC or refer the patron to us for more advanced court form help. Let the patron know that we cannot fill out the court form for them.
- Make a referral to a court form legal help program that can assist them in filling out the form, such as the Amici Curiae Friendship Society.
- If it seems like your patron hasn't done much digging themselves or seems to need some context for their issue, ask them where they have looked so far. Highlight your role in getting them started in a positive direction by showing them helpful resources they can use to do their research, such as Clicklaw or People’s Law School. Doing this allows the patron to decide what is helpful for them, gain more information about their legal issue and the resources available, and feel more in control of their legal issue and ability to solve it.
- As information professionals, we want to provide the answer to our patrons’ questions. However, you may not always find resources for every question you receive. Sometimes, a patron’s question may be beyond the scope of the legal information you have in your collection or can access online.
- If it is a resource/collection issue, check with Courthouse Libraries BC. We have a large collection of legal texts, historical legislation, and subscription legal databases.
- If a patron’s question seems beyond your library’s scope because they need legal advice or more advanced support from a community agency,, make a referral to a legal help program. You can search for legal help available in your area and province-wide using the Clicklaw HelpMap.
As the line between legal information and legal advice is more of a wide grey area, it is helpful to start with the question itself. Use this section to learn how to identify when your patron is asking for legal advice and if so, how to draw boundaries.
Legal advice seeking questions
Your patrons may not know there is a difference between legal information and legal advice, or that you as information professionals cannot provide legal advice. They also may not realize that what they need is actually legal advice, rather than legal information. It’s very rare that a patron will come up to the desk asking specifically for legal advice; instead, they are likely to ask a question regarding what they “should” do. Below, you’ll find some examples of questions you might get that indicate someone is looking for legal advice.
- What do you think I should put here on my court form?
- What would you do if you were in my situation?
- I need a lawyer. Who is a good choice?
- Do you think this is a good idea?
- Does this make sense?
- I need someone to tell me what to do.
Once you’ve determined that your patron is asking you for legal advice, it’s important to communicate your role as an information professional. Remember, you are there to help them find legal information and get them started in the right direction with their legal issue. Here are some phrases you can use to help set boundaries when a patron is looking for legal advice:
- I can get you started with some information on that topic and if you’d like more support in terms of what to do with that information, I’m happy to help look for someone with the legal training needed to offer that service.
- It sounds like you are looking for more than information on this topic. You may wish to seek legal advice or talk to a lawyer regarding your circumstances. I’ll see if there are any low cost or free services I can refer you to.
- As a librarian I don’t have a legal background, but I can help you find someone who does. Let me check to see what services are in our area.
Making an effective referral
It’s important to promote the idea of seeking help from people who are trained to provide it, and framing that as a positive. A patron may arrive in your library already frustrated due to the pinball effect experienced by those who are dealing with one or more overlapping legal issues. Making an effective referral to a legal help program can be tremendously helpful in getting them closer to what they need to resolve their legal issue. Use Clicklaw HelpMap to find legal help in your community, as well as programs that operate remotely province-wide.
HelpMap Tip: Be sure to read the descriptive paragraph for each service carefully. Check the “Type of Service” and “Location” notes listed below each one to see what kinds of services are available. If there are any service restrictions, such as income requirements, you’ll find them in the “Location” field. Checking these basic facts first will help to ensure the referral is a good one.
Updated November 16, 2020