If Knowledge is Power, Then Law Libraries are the Power Lines

A member of the public came to the Law Library recently to have a document notarized. He walked through the door and stopped dead, looking around with wonder at all the law books on the shelves (it’s a pretty impressive-looking space). He asked me “who’s allowed to use these books?” And I told him that while mostly attorneys and judges use the space, we’re also open to the public.

I have never seen an adult so excited about law books in my life.

“You mean to tell me I’m allowed to come in here and read all these books?” he asked, completely astonished. When I confirmed that he was, he couldn’t believe it.

“You mean, I can sit next to the judge who’s over my case and read the exact same books he’s reading?”

“Yep,” I said with a grin.

“I can read the same law he’s reading and tell him ‘now don’t be trying that on me. We both read that book and we both know what you’re saying isn’t right!’”

It was one of the most affirming moments of my life. This gentleman was so excited at the resources available at his fingertips, the knowledge, the possibilities and the power that he was discovering that he couldn’t stop gushing about it. Each new book that he found was exciting in a way that even I, as a book-loving librarian, have never felt. Here was a man who had been interacting with the legal system for years, feeling completely powerless. It was like the police, attorneys and judges around him were speaking Ancient Sanskrit (and they kind of are) and he had finally found the Rosetta Stone.

It was beautiful.

While every citizen of the United States has a right to an attorney in criminal matters, a staggering number of Americans appear unrepresented in civil matters that are just as important. According to americanprogress.org:

“90 to 95 percent of landlords are represented by lawyers before the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court, [but] only 5 to 10 percent of tenants have legal assistance.”

“In more than three-fourths of all civil trial cases in the United States, at least one litigant does not have a lawyer”

And

“Past estimates and more recent state-by-state studies suggest that about 80 percent of the civil legal needs of those living in poverty go unmet as well as 40 to 60 percent of the needs of middle-income Americans.”

While I think we can all agree that access to a fully-trained attorney is the best option for access to justice, access to a law library with fully-trained librarians is certainly incredibly important. Because, let’s be honest, attorneys, as much as they might hate to admit it, are still human. They get behind, they are over-worked, they make mistakes. And even if a person is being represented by a well-prepared, well-rested and fully competent attorney, a basic understanding of the law and the procedure by the client is nothing but a benefit to both the client and the attorney.

The state of Ohio requires that all counties have a law library to serve the needs of judges and other county officials, but leaves the amount of service to the general public up to the library itself. It very clearly states that “the board shall not charge a fee for access to the library”, but gives no further guidance as to how engaged we should be in the struggle to increase access to justice for the citizens of our counties.

In all honesty, increasing access to justice is not easy. It’s all well and good to say “we’re open to the public”, but it takes more than that, from both the library and the public. These books are large, full of jargon and technical legal terms and are incredibly daunting. I have multiple degrees from several universities and I have no idea what half of these books are even talking about. As law librarians we have to go further, to invest the time necessary to explain how the index works, define terms or walk someone through a process. But we are not attorneys. It is extremely rare that I am able to give a straight answer to a question from a patron. The line between explaining and interpreting is very thin and can get blurred easily. If the public patron lacks the skills and the ability to read and understand the books we give them, then the barrier to justice remains in place.

Here at HCLL we have been working with attorneys (and we’re always looking for volunteers!) to create a series of videos for the public with the main goal of explaining how the law works in easy-to-understand language. I take the information presented in the videos and create LibGuides using the 5-plus-or-minus-2 rule to keep the information simple. We imbed the video in the LibGuide and link to further information in case someone would like it, but the important information is all spelled out there in the LibGuide. All legal terms are immediately defined and the vocabulary is kept on a 5th grade reading level. Check out our I’ve Been Arrested! LibGuide for an example.

The fight for equal access to justice is never-ending. As soon as we overcome one hurdle, it seems like another one springs up to take its place (for instance, what happens if the repeal of Net Neutrality makes our videos unwatchable?) But we dig in, we soldier on, we innovate, we partner, we reach out in the hopes that one day those statistics I mentioned before become less bleak and the phrase we seem to hear over and over “I never knew this library was here” is a thing of the past.