Something that never occurred to me before I began working at the Law Library was exactly how much the way you ask your legal question matters when it comes to getting an answer that will help you. Librarians CANNOT give legal advice. We can’t interpret the questions we are asked; we have to answer the exact question in the exact way it is asked. Even if we know it’s the wrong question.
Here’s an example:
“I need a motion for indigency”
Seems pretty straightforward, right?
Here’s the thing. When you search for “motion for indigency” in Hamilton County, Ohio, nothing comes up. There’s an affidavit for indigency, but it’s not a motion. That may seem like semantics or being overly particular, but we have to answer the question that was asked. We can’t say “oh you clearly mean an affidavit for indigency” because that would be giving legal advice.
So what do we do instead? We speak in a code. We say,
“Hmmm...I’m not finding a motion for indigency. I’m finding an affidavit for indigency. Could that be it?”
Though we’ll be the first to admit we make mistakes, if we say we can’t find the form you need, it’s possible that it’s actually called something else but we can’t tell you that. Telling you “the form you need is an affidavit” is giving legal advice.
Here are some other examples of codes we will employ.
Q: “What are my rights in X situation?”
A: “Well, I can’t give legal advice, but if you look in this section in this book, you might see some helpful information.”
Code for: “Here, read this and it’ll tell you everything I’m not allowed to tell you, probably more accurately and concisely too.”
Q: “I need a sample complaint for (extremely complex and unique situation)”
A: “It looks like we don’t have a sample complaint for (extremely complex and unique situation) in Hamilton County, but here is a sample so you can see the format and here are a few complaints of similar situations.”
Code for: Wow, that’s a weird one. You’re going to need to come up with your own complaint, following the format acceptable in Hamilton County. Here is a sample of the Hamilton County format, here are some similar complaints, good luck.
Q: (Very in-depth explanation of a legal issue, the complexity of which is worthy of an Agatha Christie novel)
A: “So we’re not attorneys, we can’t give legal advice, let me give you the number of the Lawyer Referral Service and Legal Aid”
Code for: I’m not sure what your question is and if you’re not quite sure either, we’d better let the experts handle it.
When we say we can’t give legal advice, we mean we can’t interpret the facts of your case and then direct you where to go based on those facts. You need to tell us what area of law you need to research or what form or document you need. How do you know? Here are some tips.
A. Write down all of the facts of your case ahead of time.
a. It may help to put your facts in chronological order, use numbered lists and bullet points to keep your thoughts in order.
b. Answer the questions who, what, when, where and why.
c. Be as clear as possible and avoid adding details or stories that aren’t relevant.
d. Keep this summary of the case under one page in length.
B. Sum up what you would like to have happen in one sentence.
After you’ve completed steps 1 and 2, sum up your entire case in one or two short sentences. This can take some thought, but it can mean the difference between obtaining help and walking away empty-handed. Please remember, this process is for your own benefit to help you gather your thoughts. We cannot read your summary and interpret your situation.
Narrow your issue down as far as you can. “My ex isn’t paying child support”, “my landlord won’t fix the heat”, “my boss promised me a promotion and then didn’t follow-through”, “my landlord is not living up to the terms of our lease”, “my neighbor knocked down my fence and refused to fix it”, “the carpet installer broke my window”.
Each of these statements is discussed in a book in the law library. If you can boil down your legal issue to one or two sentences, we can probably get you where you need to be.