“Libraries are everywhere … this is a partnership we should encourage.” – Glenn Rawdon, Program Counsel for Technology, Legal Services Corporation

This statement is one of the cornerstones of the Libraries and Access to Justice Webinar Series, a training series developed by Pro Bono Net that kicked off on September 13th.  More than 150 attendees from public and law libraries, courts, legal service providers and others participated in the first of four webinars highlighting the role of librarians in the access to justice movement.  The next webinar takes place Thursday, Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. Eastern.

In addition to Rawdon, speakers included Sara Galligan, Director of the Ramsey County Law Library in St. Paul, MN, and Liz Keith, LawHelp Program Manager at Pro Bono Net. The series is produced by Pro Bono Net, in collaboration with the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, Central Minnesota Legal Services and Legal Services State Support (MN), and with funding from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program.

The need for public access to legal information is staggering. According to Keith:

  • 66 million people will be eligible for legal services this year, an all-time high
  • 80% of low-income people with legal needs are not being served
  • The need is not limited to only low-income people; a local legal aid office may have income guidelines or other restrictions
  • 50% of those not being served by legal aid organizations can be helped through self-help materials, videos, consumer education resources, and multilingual information

This means public and law libraries are a critical resource for a range of patrons who may not know about or qualify for legal aid assistance.  As Galligan said, “Public libraries provide effective and equal access to legal information for all in ways that are reliable, innovative, and economical.”

Public and law libraries are ideal partners in collaborations with other libraries, the courts, civil legal services providers, and other stakeholders in the legal community.  Specifically, public libraries can provide free, accessible space with flexible hours; the infrastructure to use computers, print and access the internet; and reference and referral services, including classes (such as ESL and computer literacy) and speakers to assist patrons in obtaining legal information and promoting self-help materials.  Public law librarians may have more in-depth subject specializations, additional legal training, and existing partnerships with legal community.

LSC is working to encourage collaborations between legal services and libraries, Rawdon explained.  Web-based tools such as the network of statewide legal aid websites available on LawHelp.org, which provide legal information directly to the public, are often accessed by low-income individuals through libraries.  LSC has committed to engaging librarians in a variety of ways to ensure they are comfortable with the available tools.  These efforts include involving librarians as outreach partners, content contributors, and in state-wide committees and task forces.  They also include ongoing outreach such as a 2010 conference “Public Libraries and Access to Justice” to educate the library community about the resources available.

Upcoming webinars in the series include:

September 27, 2012 – Connecting Library Patrons with Legal Information: Key Resources

October 11, 2012 – Helping Patrons Find Legal Assistance in their Community: Online Referral Tools

November 1, 2012 – Developing Legal Aid-Library Collaborations: Models and Replication Resources.

To join these webinars, or to find more information about the series and see past webinars, please visit our site at: http://www.probono.net/librarywebinars/.