Illinois Legal Aid Online Debuts Re-designed Self-Help Center Pages

Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) recently re-designed their directory of legal self-help centers. Site users in need of legal help should now be able to better understand what each center does and doesn’t offer.

The ILAO network includes 173 legal self-help center (LSHC) locations in 99 counties, and they organized the information on the site in a way that can be replicated in other states. An ILAO report notes that they started the redesign last year by conducting user studies on what matters most to potential LSHC users – wonder if this means it was all self-represented litigants or if there were other user groups as well.

Either way, the site’s organization looks great – click the pic below to visit:

ILAO

started this work by conducting two users studies in 2017 to determine what matters most to potential LSHC users. This study showed that users were interested in the following (listed in descending order of importance):

  1. Referrals for local legal help;
  2. Paper court forms;
  3. “Lawyer in the Library” programs;
  4. People to answer general questions about going to court;
  5. Computers;
  6. Wireless internet; and
  7. Brochures or packets with legal information.

The study also showed that users consider the location type (library, courthouse), type of resources offered, hours of operation, website, phone number, address, and map of location when looking for a LSHC. ILAO used this information to re-design our LSHC homepages using a hotel-style amenities model – which provides potential customers with an easy-to-understand list of a hotel’s features – and makes it easy for users to see what types of resources are available at each self-help center before they visit the center in person. Each LSHC location page features the following standard information (for example, see the Palestine Public Library District LSHC page):

 

  1. Icons that represent the services available at that location, with brief descriptions of each
    service next to the icons;
  2. Address, hours, phone number, and website;
  3. A clickable map that links to directions and other geolocation help;
  4. A list of amenities that are not available at the location;
  5. An option to share the page via social media;
  6. A list of “common legal issues” (which link to resources that local stakeholders have identified as common for that location);
  7. Information to indicate the cost of printing or scanning and, if the location has navigators, the hours that navigation assistance is available; and
  8. A legal self-help center description.

The ABA Legal Fact Check Site is Pretty Awesome

The ABA Legal Fact Check** website takes current events (mass shootings, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, presidential/congressional speeches/quotes/tweets, the #metoo movement, flag burning, etc.) and uses cases and statutory law to “separate legal fact from fiction”.

ABA Legal Fact Check

 

I think it’s a fun take on the bizarre issue of “alternative facts”. I’ve advised my family and friends to use it next time someone tells them it’s treason to not support a president *eyeroll*.

I also think websites like this are a great way to package legal information for non-lawyers. There’s no bulky legalese – it’s written in plain language with an informal tone. As fast as information travels, it’s comforting to have a home base where “facts” are vetted through cases and statutory law.

**I found this through the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. (LLSDC) listserv.

Round-Up: What I’m Reading

How Do We Engage with Ideas that Make Us Uncomfortable from the RIPS Law Librarian Blog

Digital Divides and Justice Gaps from Ex Libris Juris, a blog publication for the Harris County Law Library

Legal Reference for Public Libraries from the Maryland State Law Library

2013 National Self-Help in Libraries Survey by the Self-Represented Litigation Network’s Library Working Group

Law Libraries Serving Self-Represented Litigants from the 2015 Trends, National Center for State Courts e-Collection

The Sustainable 21st Century Law Library: Vision, Deployment, and Assessment for Access to Justice by Richard Zorza

 

Resource Highlight: Arizona’s Handbook for Self-Represented Litigants

I came across this helpful guide through the Self-Represented Litigation Network‘s listserv. I think it’s well-written, concise, and clear, so I wanted to save a copy here on the blog.

I’m actually not sure if any actual law librarians worked on this, but I’d imagine it’s incredibly useful at legal self-help centers. I really like that the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona keeps their online PDF version protected behind a “Terms and Conditions of Use” statement.

Click the photo below to access the handbook:

Photo

Harris County Law Library Expands Services for Low-Income Houstonians

I’m a proud Houston native, so I was especially thrilled to read this announcement.

Joseph Lawson, Deputy Director of the Harris County Law Library, shared a press release announcing extended “Library Booth” hours for self-represented litigants. The booth is staffed by local pro bono attorneys. Full press release below:

HVL Announces Expanded Pro Se Program at County Law Library
Houston Volunteer Lawyers (HVL), a service of the Houston Bar Association, has announced the expansion of its pro se assistance program at the Harris County Law Library, located at 1019 Congress in downtown. Beginning today, the “Library Booth,” as it is commonly known, will be open five days a week, from 9:00 a.m. until noon and from 1:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. The booth previously was open only during the morning hours. Pro se litigants will be served on a first come, first served basis during the hours the booth is open.
The Library Booth provides legal information to individuals who are representing themselves, primarily in family law matters such as divorce and custody modification. In 2017, the program helped 1,457 people.
“Because of the incredible demand for assistance to self-represented litigants, we are pleased to offer expanded opportunities for help,” said Alistair Dawson, president of the Houston Bar Association. “We believe the extended hours will benefit the courts and the administration of justice, as well as the pro se litigants.”
Along with a senior HVL staff attorney and a paralegal, attorneys on rotation from different Houston law firms volunteer their time to help the pro se litigants. HVL also is looking into expanding other aspects of its pro se divorce program, including monthly divorce clinics and paid internships to assist pro se litigants with completing documents and forms such as petitions, final decrees, civil process requests and civil answers.
In addition to the Library Booth, HVL has an office on the 17th floor of the Civil Courthouse, 201 Caroline, to answer questions from pro se litigants from 8:30 a.m. until noon and from 1:00-2:00 p.m.
###
Houston Volunteer Lawyers is a service of the Houston Bar Association. The HBA, with nearly 11,000 members, provides professional development, education, and service programs for the legal profession and the community.

 

 

I Need Your Voice!

Are you part of a law library that helps self-represented litigants in unique ways? Innovative assistance can come in the form of programs, events, published materials, protocols, workshops, tutorials, online help, and more.

If you’re interested in sharing these methods, please email me at matthewsa@cua.edu, drop a comment below, or click “Contact” in the header menu and message me with your information. I’m compiling a list of best practices for lawbrarians helping pro se litigants, and the results will be included in an upcoming academic symposium.

The more the merrier. Thank you to everyone who can help!

Law Library Makerspaces

The Cochise County Law Library in Tucson, Arizona recently told a local news outlet that they’re renovating their building for the first time in about 50 years. From Tucson News Now:

For decades, the Law Library has housed thousands of books, which were available to both the public and legal experts looking for information or help with research.

But technology and the Internet have lessened the need for these bulky and expensive volumes, which means the area they occupied can be repurposed and recreated as a more user-friendly resource.

It seems more and more law libraries are making similar moves and shifting the focus away from static print resources, guiding patrons to makerspaces where they can sit with lawbrarians and gain an understanding of necessary legal forms, instructions, and other self-help resources.

Full article here.

 

Paradigm Shift: Focus on what we *can* do as Law Librarians, and not on what we can’t

This post will be quick since I’m swamped (in a good way, I suppose!) with work at the law library, library school finals, group projects, research, and way too many other things.

Found this older article by A2J lawbrarian Shawn Friend on the RIPS Law Librarian blog, and this paragraph jumped out at me:

For dual-degreed law librarians, the concern about the unauthorized practice of law may loom large. But realistically, what is the concern? In the end, all the questions that can’t be answered boil down to two types – “Is this right?” “What should I do?” Those questions cannot be answered with research. But almost anything else can.

As a new law librarian, I usually experience an initial flash of panic whenever I assist pro se patrons. It’s sometimes accompanied with the familiar sting of imposter syndrome, followed by pangs of sympathy (no one likes to tustle with the law, especially non-lawyers). Once this emotional roller coaster is over (usually takes about 10 seconds), I’m left to parse through the issues to see where I can help without closing another door to assistance for the patron.

The concern about legal advice has now run up against a heavily competing interest – access to justice. The two do not necessarily have to be competing – the training of librarians should focus much more heavily on what they can do. AALL’s white paper on this subject perhaps states it best: “[a]nother challenge regards the ongoing need to train librarians, especially public librarians, about the unauthorized practice of law from the perspective of permissiveness rather than restrictiveness.”

I think a lot of my “emotional roller coaster” can be calmed by adopting this attitude. We are often told what we can’t do as non-practicing law librarians, and these restrictions are always looming in my head during my interactions with pro se patrons – so much so that, in the throes of my own existential new-lawbrarian thoughts, it’s hard to focus on what I can do.

Some folks just need basic assistance. They need to understand causes of action, or find statutes, or simply just know where to look for legal info. Guiding patrons to materials doesn’t have to continue into the realm of legal advice, but we are so fearful of crossing that line that we may not start at all.

Lawbrarian Shawn Friend does a great job of reminding us of what we can do to help public patrons, and this was a refreshing read.

Full article

 

“Eliminating Barriers to Justice” Con: Teach pro se litigants to D-I-Y

The “Eliminating Barriers to Justice” conference at Georgia State University School of Law gathered A2J experts together to discuss access to justice for Georgia’s rural population, specifically for those who speak limited English or have a disability.

During the event, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Nels Peterson noted that access to justice means more than having access to a lawyer. From the Daily Report Online:

The lack of lawyers for people who need help with civil matters in underserved areas is about more than law; it’s about economics, transportation, health care and education, the justice said. People in the South Georgia counties with no lawyers, and the many others with only a handful, have more needs than just legal, he said.

I know there’s been a push for public service lawyers to practice holistic legal representation, and for good reason. When I interned with the Georgia Justice Project years ago on their expungement project, I noticed that clients faced a multitude of barriers to employment beyond their criminal records: lack of access to disability or veterans benefits, housing issues, child support issues, etc.

It was not effective to ignore these other problems and focus solely on criminal records, so attorneys would often triage legal issues according to urgency. Clients were sometimes routed to local partners, such as medical-legal partnerships, social workers, or government agencies.

The Daily Report Online article also features A2J lawbrarian Laureen Kelly, who I talked about a couple of weeks ago on this blog. Since that #TBT article was written, it looks like Kelly has received some much-needed support to offer legal “self-help” services to Georgia’s rural pro se litigants:

She created and expanded a law library in the Daugherty County Courthouse, where she works daily providing research and assistance to people who can’t find or can’t afford a lawyer. She serves on the State Bar of Georgia Access to Justice Committee, which has won a grant to address the rural lawyer shortage. The plan is to use the grant to expand Kelly’s library and make it a pilot project for other parts of the state to copy.

If people in Atlanta or other cities don’t fully understand the needs of rural areas, Kelly seeks to be the translator. When people asked why the state can’t simply provide more legal aid lawyers, Kelly explained that often those who come to her for help do not meet the low-income requirements for legal aid help, but they don’t have the money to pay a lawyer either. Or they do meet the guidelines, but they have a need that legal aid lawyers aren’t allowed to handle such as divorce. Or the legal aid lawyers are already overbooked.

When someone asked why people in underserved areas don’t just use their computers and broadband internet to get help online, Kelly explained than many of the people who walk into her second-floor library don’t have laptops and tablets. A significant number of them can’t read or write, she said.

You can read the full article here. Kelly and all the other A2J lawbrarians out there are undoubtedly amazing for walking so many non-attorneys through the clunky and not-user-friendly-at-all legal system.

I’m always hunting for free, ready-made tools and resources that could facilitate the time-consuming process of explaining legal research and issues to law library patrons. With the help of these resources, law librarians may also be better able to hone in on other legal, social, or medical issues pro se litigants are facing.

Legal

 

#TBT: Inspiring 2015 Article on Georgia A2J Lawbrarian Laureen Kelly

I was recently accepted to present research on law librarianship and self-represented litigants at a library and information sciences symposium next year. I’ve already started reading more academic research on legal self-help centers and law libraries, but I also like searching for background info in older news articles and archived web content.

That’s how I stumbled on this older article from The Daily Report highlighting the tireless work of law librarian Laureen Kelly in Albany, Georgia. The article does a great job showing the emotional stress that can come along with being a public law librarian, and the desperation that many self-represented litigants go through while trying to find affordable legal help.

Laureen-Kelly

Lauren Kelly for The Daily Report/Law.com (John Disney/Daily Report)

A snippet:

The family spent about 45 minutes in the library, including most of what would have been Kelly’s half hour off for lunch. She even gave her purple grapes to the little boy, taking time to wash them first.

Kelly said the family was typical of the people served by the law library, one of the busiest of about 10 legal help centers funded by court fees and run by local governments.

Law librarians like Kelly are working to fill the gap between the need for legal services and the lack of access to attorneys, particularly in rural communities like those surrounding Albany in deep South Georgia, according to Michael Monahan, pro bono director for Georgia Legal Services.

Rural communities are hit especially hard by a lack of access to legal assistance, and it seems Kelly’s library in Albany gets visits from neighboring Georgia counties. In addition, the article points out that the local legal aid organizations were already overloaded with cases, so the rejected would-be clients flock to the law library for free help and resources.

My plan is to try and speak with Kelly to see if this need has increased, decreased, or remained stable throughout the years since this article was written. It would also be interesting to find out whether any tools or resources have been developed to ease Kelly’s workload, especially since the article notes that, like many other county employees, she has not received a raise since she started working for the law library.

Read the full article on Law.com.