Monday, May 07, 2007

CALL 2007 Conference - Public Access to Legal Information

At the 2007 conference of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries being held in Ottawa until Wednesday, there was a session today on "The Ultimate End User: the Public's Access to Law Libraries and Legal Information".

There were 3 presentations dealing with how law libraries and public libraries can respond to the growing number of self-represented litigants, as well with the generalized growth in the appetite of the public for legal information.

Johanne Blenkin, executive director of the British Columbia Courthouse Library Society, provided an overview of what her organization has been doing in recent years. She first cautioned that statistics show that only 10% of public legal information needs are actually related to any formal legal claims in the court system. And of these 10%, only 2% end in trial, which leads to the question whether those law libraries that do seek to help the public are not spending too much time or effort on the small number of information requests that deal with litigation or that come from self-represented litigants.

That being said, Blenkin described the B.C. model. The Courthouse Library Society is a non-profit agency whose mandate includes serving the public and assisting public libraries in making legal information accessible. The Society has become involved in a number of initiatives to accomplish that such as the Public Library Legal Resource project. The project involves putting basic legal collections in public libraries throughout the province. In 2007, this takes the shape of a pilot project in 3 public libraries.

Blenkin commented that public libraries can provide the expertise in user assessment. But in exchange, they are asking for training in collection development, in how to provide legal information as well as help with deciding what to keep and what to discard.

Joan Cavanagh, manager of information services at the Ottawa Public Library (OPL), provided the public library perspective. From her experience, members of the public with an information need tend to approach a public library with a set of very specific expectations: they expect to leave the library with everything they need, they think the public library should be a "one-stop shop" that will help them fully understand the information they understand. As well, in terms of legal information needs, they expect the public library to help them find a lawyer. Of course, the reality is often different.

In her overview of the OPL, Cavanagh explained that the collection includes basic materials such as statutes and regulations, citators, self-counsel legal books (which circulate a lot), research guides (which do not), bylaws and basic periodical indexes such as LegalTrac. What an institution like the OPL will not have: case law reporters, databases, forms and precedents, journals, the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, the Canadian Abridgment system of case digests, case citations, statutory citations and words & phrases, and rules of court and rules of practice.

She said that reference staff in public libraries would like to receive training from experts, such as law librarians, in such areas as: the best websites for legal information, the basic sources law library pros use, ways to improve the process by which librarians refer people to agencies that can help (social agencies, government services, legal aid, etc.). Law librarians could even set up training sessions for public library reference staff who could then translate the new knowledge into tutorials or training sessions for the public.

The final speaker was Mona Pearce, Chief Librarian, Alberta Law Society Libraries. She described the Law Information Centres (LInC) Initiative that is intended to assist self-represented litigants in the province. The idea for the LInC Initiative comes out of a Self-Represented Litigant Committee report in 2005 composed of members of the judiciary, government and NGOs (e.g. Alberta Law Reform Institute, Native Counselling Services, Canadian Bar Association etc.). The report recommended setting up 4 LInCs across Alberta, essentially to help self-represented litigants through the system, thus reducing the time needed to deal with the increasing number of cases being litigated by often unprepared non-professionals in the province's courts.

Pearce explained that the LInC network is fully funded by Alberta Justice.

The first 2 LInCs opened in April 2007 in Edmonton and Red Deer. The next one opens next month in Grande Prairie and the Calgary LInC is scheduled for 2008.

In the first month of operation, the 2 currently operating Centres answered an impressive 2231 questions.

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 9:51 pm

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