“With a surge in the number of people seeking assistance for issues with a legal dimension there is a need for partnerships between libraries and agencies that care about access to justice in the community.” – Mary Ann VanCura, Continuing Education & Library Development Specialist, Library Development Services, Minnesota Department of Education
With Mary Ann VanCura’s words in mind, on September 27th, over 200 public and law librarians joined civil legal service providers, advocates and others in the second of the Libraries and the Access to Justice Movement webinar series, “Connecting Library Patrons With Legal Information.” The resources highlighted in this 90 minute webinar, summarized below, included state legal information websites, interactive forms, consumer information through the Federal Trade Commission’s new siteconsumer.gov and the Public Libraries & Access to Justice site.
Liz Keith, LawHelp Program Manger at Pro Bono Net, reviewed the information available on the system of Legal Services Corporation-funded statewide websites, all of which can be found via LawHelp, a gateway to 54 state and territory sites. These statewide legal aid websites use plain language, and are produced by consortiums of agencies across the state’s legal aid community, to create trusted, credible content, accessible in many formats, and often in multiple languages. Typically a site will have fact sheets, booklets, frequently asked questions, self-help forms, as well as referral and court information. Many sites also offer live chat assistance to help users navigate the site. Although legal aid agencies may focus on low income residents, “many of the sites have information that cuts across all demographics, and can be helpful to patrons from all walks of life,” Liz said. Public and law libraries serve as advisory, content and outreach partners on LawHelp.org projects in several states.
Liz also discussed self-help legal information and forms available through many law libraries and court websites. An online directory of court self-help resources is available on the National Center for State Courts website. The Georgetown Law Library also provides user-friendly online research guides for primary legal information in each state, as well as substantive research guides in more than a dozen issue areas.
“LawHelp Interactive is a tool someone in a library can use to create a legal document … [it] guides them through from beginning to end,” Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net, explained. These free, online forms are available in most states (currently 46 states either have such forms or are in the process of developing them). The forms are created by not-for-profit legal aid agencies and coalitions, and deal with topics such as evictions, foreclosures, divorce, child custody and support, as well as small wills and estates issues. LawHelp Interactive hosts over 3,000 forms, although not all forms are available in all states. To learn more about how libraries can get involved in LawHelp Interactive projects in your state, contact Claudia at email@example.com.
Carol Kando-Pineda, of the Division of Consumer and Business Education at the Federal Trade Commission, presented on several tools available to users. The Federal Trade Commission’s website provides print publications, video, audio, games, puzzles, social media and more to inform the public about a host of different consumer issues. The FTC has completely revamped their general consumer information materials, including the “Taking Charge” booklet, and has created a tool kit with presentation slides, agendas, press releases and anything else a library, or any community group, would need to give a presentation on identity theft.
However, as she pointed out, “30 million people do not read well enough to read a newspaper or apply for a job. That’s 14% of people over 16.” This called for a rethink of the current site, to better serve the needs of these users. From this, Consumer.gov was created. This site doesn’t replace the current materials on the FTC website, but gives users quick and easy to use materials designed not to overwhelm them. Focusing on small chunks of key information concerning money management, credit loans and debt as well as identity theft, the FTC partnered with linguists as well as legal aid agencies to create a site that goes beyond plain language, using simple video as well as audio to assist users. The resources encompass information for both users and information providers (such as teachers, librarians and advocates), and all the print materials can be ordered from their bulk order website. Consumer.gov is available in English and Spanish, and the print materials on the site are available in Tagalog, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.
Public Libraries & Access to Justice
As Mary Ann VanCura of the Minnesota Department of Education told the audience, “Not every library staff member considers themselves a person capable of providing legal information, and some are hesitant to do so. The hope with the library and access to justice page is that library staff be encouraged to understand what they are able to do.” This was part of the impetus behind Public Libraries & Access to Justice, a collaboration between WebJunction and Minnesota Public Libraries. The site is an online portal to resources for the library community, a place to centralize and share best practices, policies and procedures, forms, learning opportunities and expertise to promote high quality library services to the public or other library end users. The Minnesota effort aims to create a central repository for resources promoting access to legal information at libraries; provide training and promote communication amongst libraries themselves and with legal content creators.
Throughout the presentation, participants shared other online resources they find helpful. Among these were: The Judicial Branch of Arizona, Maricopa County; Webjunction Texas; and Cornell Legal Information Institute. A complete list of these resources will be posted to Pro Bono Net’s Libraries and Access to Justice Webinar Series Homepage.
If you’re interested in listening to this or any of the past webinars, or registering for one of the future presentations, visit the Libraries and Access to Justice Webinar Series Homepage for information, recordings, and registration information. All recordings are free and open to the public.