Legal Reference for Public Libraries: Classify the Need

To determine which resources to look at first, it is helpful to classify the need - figure out what the patron is looking for by category, rather than topic. With legal information, the need falls generally into four categories. Many questions will fall into more than one category.

Once you have figured out which category or categories the question is for, you can move forward in selecting the resources to provide, or, if you have identified that the resources are not accessible in your library, point them to where they can find those resources.

Category 1: Information

Information is, simply, discussion about the law or an area of interest.
The patron may not be pursuing legal action of any kind, but is curious or just wishes to know about something. They may be thinking about taking action, but need more information before deciding. This category is also where many requests for legal advice fall - you can give information and also referrals for legal assistance (see Category 4: Legal Assistance, below).

Examples of requests for information:

  • What are my chances of getting full custody of my children in the divorce?
    You can find information on custody, generally.
  • Can I record a phone call without telling the other person?
    Look for information about audio-recording and privacy.
  • What can I do if my former landlord refuses to return my security deposit?
    There is an abundance of information about security deposit returns.

Category 2: Law

Text of a statute, regulation, case, or rule.
Usually, the patron has some kind of citation indicating the material they wish to see. Sometimes the citation is incomplete or incorrect in some manner. If you cannot locate the specific material, check the citation using the tools provided through this website.

Examples of requests for law:

  • I need a copy of Brown vs. Board of Education.
  • My traffic ticket says TA 21 801.1. What does that mean?

Category 3: Services

Need for assistance with law or government services.
Some legal questions are related to the services or benefits provided by government agencies, like Medicare or unemployment. Often, the agency managing the benefit has information on their website, and has contact information where patrons can call to get responses to their questions.

Examples of services questions:

  • How do I terminate Medicare Part B benefits?
  • How can I get my Section 8 voucher back?
  • What happens if I get an unemployment check after I found a job?

Category 4: Legal Assistance

Need for someone who can provide interpretive guidance, analysis, or help writing legal documents.
A question for legal assistance is often also, or phrased as, a question for legal information. Many people do not recognize the difference or separate the two in their minds. You can provide the information (see Category 1 above), then point them to locations where they can get interpretive guidance in moving forward.

Examples of legal assistance questions:

  • Can I break my lease if my apartment is infested with bugs?
    You can provide general information on lease-breaking, but since you cannot tell them whether their own situation qualifies to break a lease, you would also refer them to an attorney, usually through a self-help center, to speak to someone who can assess their situation and advise them.
  • My ex is saying nasty things about me on her social media sites. Can I sue her for defamation?
    You can provide general information about defamation in Maryland, but since you cannot tell the person whether the acts committee qualify as defamation, you also want to point them to legal assistance.
  • Can I get custody of my grandchildren?
    You can provide general information about custody and related procedures, but again, because you cannot assess their individual circumstances, you will also want to refer them to legal assistance

Reassess As You Go

Remember to reassess the question as you move along. A question for information may include a need for legal assistance and/or a need for referrals for government services. Many requests for specific documents (a Code section, for instance), may be embedded in a general request for information.

Last revised 05/09/2018