Public Law Libraries – An Opinion

Librarians in the 21st Century: Why Law Libraries Are More Important Than Ever – In a Nation of Laws, the Right of Access is Fundamental

By D.M. Moehrle

originally published on February 22, 2017 on lithub.com

One of the eternal debates of librarianship in the 21st century is what it means to serve: who serves, and who is served, and who benefits from the serving? Many librarians feel called to the profession, but the gap between the theory of service and its daily practice can be frustrating and disheartening. Public law librarians, like Dolly, feel this tension keenly. Most Americans do not have ready access to public law libraries, so it’s tempting to imagine that those citizens who do have a better chance at understanding and interacting with the legal system. As calls for criminal justice reform reverberate around the country, the idea of her library serves as an example of how legal access could be made more equitable. In practice, things are more complicated.

–Stephanie Anderson

Aside from a fondness for Ignatius of Loyola and an impressively inaccurate reenactment of the conversion of Paul that I can deploy on demand, the only thing I’ve kept from my Catholic school education is a belief in the value of service. Every student had a service requirement—a few hours every year that my classmates and I usually spent at a soup kitchen or a shelter. I loved the idea of service, even though I preferred to spend most of my free time on AOL in those halcyon early internet days. Giving time and labor to a higher purpose, to something other than yourself. It made me a sitting duck for librarianship, truth be told. Though popular media would have you believe librarians are solitary creatures, like bears, the truth is many librarians are providing customer service and doing the heavy lifting of emotional labor.

People come into my law library, by and large, because they are in crisis. Their need is vast and endless. Public libraries like to tell the happy stories—kids at storytime, job applicants. At the law library, we are open to the public, but the stories are rarely happy. People enter with the fear that they don’t belong. They’re scared, lost, confused, hopeless. Our users struggle to understand and articulate their problems, and they’re up against a system they know almost nothing about. Heightened emotions are the norm.

The public law library is a curiosity even among librarians, who look at me with that confused expression that’s a prelude to someone trying to get out of a conversation as quickly as possible, as I try to explain where I work, what we do, who we help. We are classed, per the American Association of Law Libraries, with the Government Law Libraries interest section, though our peers in that group include court libraries and others that do not serve the public. In California, where, by statute, all 58 counties are meant to have a law library, not every county has a functioning law library; some have a Westlaw or Lexis terminal in their courthouse, which is a little like providing a first aid kit and an anatomy textbook in place of an ER. The funding mechanism for the CA county law libraries is a portion (for me, $32!) taken from each civil filing fee filed in their county, so our fortunes are dependent on the size and workload of our county’s Superior Court. What this looks like in practice is this: Los Angeles has the second largest public law library in the United States, and Lake County Law Library has had to cut hours and materials due to their continually declining revenue. Revenue at my law library has declined 38 percent since 2008. We rank somewhere behind the larger counties and quite a bit above the smaller counties. When I took over as director in 2014, it was with the grim awareness that much of my work would be in cutting, cutting, cutting, to save money. Legal materials are exceptionally expensive: the other day a publisher sent me a new edition of a book with a bill for $600. I sent it back; the 2012 edition will work fine for now.

At the front desk, where I spend two hours almost every morning, my work is different each day. I go from working with an attorney to find a practice guide that contains details on tolling the statute of limitations; to assisting a person preparing to file a trial de novo for a traffic ticket; to giving referrals to the many other agencies located near us such as Child Support, Environmental Health, the County Recorder, the Tax Assessor; to walking a user through the steps to print out emails for their case. (Confidential to Yahoo!: your interface makes this too difficult.) Reference questions like these are our bread and butter, if you can pick through the usually florid description of the problem to pull out the question. In library school, you learn how to use a reference interview to find out more information and deliver better results to the patron, but they don’t always cover the patron who has a drawn out story about their partner leaving, and taking the dog with them, and the police won’t do anything to return the dog, and they mentioned small claims court, and the partner now has no fixed address, and, and, and, and…

Most people have little to no legal education, outside Law & Order. I try to explain to the mother with her head in her hands reading through the custody documents provided by the family court, and to the man trying to figure out how to respond to a 30-day notice to pay or be evicted, and to the elderly woman not sure how to remove her deceased husband’s name from their title, that what is making this hard for them is not a lack of ability or intelligence. It’s not their fault. Lawyers go to school to learn how to think a certain way, I tell them. Even lawyers specialize, and many of them don’t feel comfortable working outside their practice area—there’s too much to know. As a law librarian without a law degree, I am a frustrating presence, even to myself. Unable to answer questions directly, unable to fill in paperwork, unable to do much more but point a way down a path that many of my patrons don’t have the time to pursue. The unauthorized practice of law in California is punishable by “up to one year in a county jail or by a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.” (That’s Business & Professions code 6126.)

Still, my staff and I try to help. Patrons return to tell me, that book you gave me showed me exactly what I need to do. That web page you printed out helped me understand.

In February 2016, the stars aligned over our library and we were able to start a legal clinic with the Ventura County Bar Association. Twice a month, patrons can come in and get legal advice and help from practicing attorneys. On clinic nights, the normally sedate, dignified law library turns into a noisy center for legal aid, and it is glorious. We’ve helped over 300 people to date, with everything from basic tenancy issues to divorce problems, from estate planning to the patron who needed advice on a Social Security appeal. The lawyers listen seriously, offer suggestions, and afterwards seem giddy enough to high five over how excited they are to help people in a meaningful way. The patrons, leaving, often stop by the front desk and say, “Thank you for being here.” Many come back and use the guidance they were given and the resources we have available to continue to work on their problem.

In California, both the courts and the law libraries are struggling to figure out how to fund the resources that people need. Sometimes I feel like I will never have a balanced budget. So many people encounter the legal system at some point in their lives, and they are too often left on their own to figure out what to do due to a lack of money. I will probably not be the person to solve the so-called “justice gap,” but as it turns out, that Catholic school service requirement prepared me to do the work I am capable of—connecting the people who come through our doors with the resources they need, one person at a time.

National Pro Bono Week – October 25-31, 2015; Lawyers in the Library – Every Week

And Justice for All logo(2)National Pro Bono Week

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service is making plans for a national celebration of pro bono services next week, October 25 – 31, 2015.  The ABA wants to recognize the valuable pro bono contributions made by lawyers across the country.  Through their generosity of time and skills, pro bono volunteers can enhance efforts to increase access to justice for all across the country.

Here in the East Bay, the Alameda County Law Library, too, envisions a future in which all people have effective access to justice.  To bring about this vision, the Library provides access to information required for participation in the legal system, resolving legal disputes, engaging in commerce, and tending to personal affairs and academic projects. Another means for ACLL to provide legal guidance to Alameda County citizens is through the Lawyers in the Library program.

Lawyers in the Library

The Alameda County Lawyers in the Library program is a countywide service coordinated by the ACLL and staffed by volunteer attorneys. Volunteers provide free consultation and referrals on a wide variety of issues including landlord tenant disputes, probate matters, employment problems, and other general consumer issues. These consultations take place at public libraries (including ACLL’s Oakland and Hayward locations) on a rotating basis throughout the month. The Lawyers in the Library program is an important step in the Library’s mission of providing access to justice to its community.

LILLogo_White_Civic_fbSince ACLL took ownership of the program, five new library location sessions have been added –  OPL’s Brookfield branch; Civic Center Branch, Livermore PL; Downtown Oakland Senior Center; Elmhurst branch, OPL; and Melrose Branch, OPL.  In 2014, 1449 people were seen by the volunteers. So far in 2015, 1347 people have been able to speak to an attorney.  There are 40-45 active volunteers at 35 locations holding 44 sessions (providing 88 legal advice hours) per month.

Thank you to all the current volunteers!  We can always use more volunteers and other “libraries” or locations to host the volunteers.  If you are interested in learning more about getting involved, please contact the program’s coordinator, Nicole, at nicole.lemieux@acgov.org.

 

 

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Who Pays? – Report On The Costs Associated With Incarceration – Oakland’s Ella Baker Center For Human Rights

The Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a number of other community and civil rights organizations that work with incarcerated people have released a report finding that the costs associated with incarceration, such as traveling for prison visits, have pushed more than one-third of the families of the who_pays_-_meme1e_copy_for_websiteincarcerated person into debt.

Timothy Williams authored a recent article in The New York Times summarizing the findings of the report.

In all, researchers interviewed more than 1,000 former inmates and family members in 14 states and found that court fees and fines, phone and visitation expenses, and commissary costs frequently sink families deep into poverty.

Even public defenders are not always free. Most states permit courts to charge defendants who use public defenders — with costs sometimes rising to thousands of dollars, the report said. Other states charge defendants extra fees for jury trials.

The full report is available by using this link  – who-pays

 

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CEB & California County Law Libraries Partner Program

ceb_logo_2California’s Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB) is teaming up with the Council of California County Law Librarians (CCCLL) to help support the continued free public access to legal resources for all Californians — but — your help is needed.

As part of the partnership program between CEB and CCCLL, when you or your firm places an order for CEB products using a designated CEB priority code (9629A  for the Alameda County Law Library) CEB will credit that county law library’s account with 10% of the value of the order.   By simply using a priority code, you or your firm help maintain the public law collections available to all within your community.

CEB products included in this program are:

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OnLAW libraries give you access to the largest source of web-based California legal commentary and analysis.

CEB Books   

Comprehensive and authoritative, CEB print materials offer in-depth coverage of the law and expert analysis and guidance from California’s leading practitioners.

CEB’s Specialization Courses ~ Preparation for Certified Specialist Exams

  •  FLIC (Family Law Intensive Course) 
  •  EPIC (Estate Planning Intensive Course)

Please support the goals of the Alameda County Law Library as it continues to envision a future in which all people have effective access to justice. To bring about this vision, we provide access to information required for participation in the legal system, resolving legal disputes, engaging in commerce, and tending to personal affairs and academic projects.

Use CEB priority code 9629A when you place an order with Continuing Education of the Bar.

Thank you.

Flyer for CEB/CCCLL Partner Program

 

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Legal Document Assistance in Hayward

Every second Monday of the month, the Hayward Branch of the Alameda County Law Library hosts a volunteer session from 3-5 p.m. with a Legal Document Assistant (LDA). This is to aid patrons with their legal paper work, showing them resources they can use to answer their questions and some samples of filled out forms.   This session is led by a member of the California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA), Helen Bellamy.  She has been the LDA volunteering for South County patrons since 2010.  She has a wonderful demeanor with many patrons appreciating her assistance and kindness.Helen Bellamy

Helen came to working in the legal field through her own foray in to family law issues.  After handling a personal child custody situation, she realized she wanted to be able to help others with their legal challenges.  This led her into going to law school and, after trying to pass the bar a few times, deciding being an attorney wasn’t meant to be.   So she made the switch to being a Legal Document Assistant and in this capacity, she feels she’s better able to help people.

In the past, Legal Document Assistants were known as Independent Paralegals until 1994.  That is when the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1994 was signed into law and the term “legal” was no longer useable with with regard to people who did bankruptcy preparation work.  See the law, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c103:1:./temp/~c103zKuoee:e95627.  With this change, many Independent Paralegals, who often did bankruptcy paperwork on behalf of clients, had to get a new name.  In 1998, Pete Wilson signed into law, SB1418  which codified the position.   California is the first state to regulate the profession of Legal Document Assistant.

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Legal Documents Assistants are legally obligated to register with the county in which they work and are bonded and governed by the California Business & Professions Code Sections 6400-6415 and 6450-6456.   They do their work independent of attorneys, unlike paralegals, who work under the direction of an attorney.  California Legal Document Assistants was established in 1986.

Bellamy prides herself on being able to help people understand the process of doing a legal case and how to find out how to help themselves.  If you would like to learn more about her, she has a webiste:  http://www.selfhelplawservices.com

The role of traffic court fines in the poverty cycle

Not Just a Ferguson Problem
Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How the Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California

Many have heard of the scathing March 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Justice on the police department of Ferguson, Missouri and the use of fines as a revenue source for the city — fines that are placed disproportionally on people of color via small infractions.  Unfortunately, similar methods of municipal financing is occurring in our own state.

A consortium of legal aid organizations:  The Western Center on Law and Poverty, the East Bay Community Law Center, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, have produced a report that looks at the impact on families of the policy of using traffic fines.  “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” outlines how the fines have increased significantly since 2006, how the courts often impose the maximum fine and how there is little incentive not to since these fines support the courts, and how the resulting license suspension for not paying results in job loss and, therefore, further inability to pay the fines.

Not-Just-a-Ferguson-Problem-Drivers-License-Infographic

San Francisco has the Second Chance Legal Clinic for people who are in just such a predicament:  their license was suspended and they owe exorbitant fines.  This clinic also helps people that are barred from employment or housing due to past criminal actions.  The East Bay Community Law Center, who also helped with the above report, also has a Clean Slate Clinic.

You can find out about these and other resources at the Alameda County Law Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Library Week – More Than Just Books – ACLL’s Role In Access To Justice

Access to Justice – The Role of Public Law Libraries

The Alameda County Law Library is a public law library.  We try to help everyone who walks through our doors.

In addition to traditional library services of organizing and providing legal books and periodicals, the library envisions a future in which all people have effective access to justice.  To bring about this vision, staff gathers resources and assists patrons with gaining access to information required for participation in the legal system, resolving legal disputes, engaging in commerce, and tending to personal legal affairs and academic projects.  Staff members are specialists in the legal information.

What is access to justice?

The phrase “access to justice” was popularized in 1978 by Mauro Cappelletti and Bryant Garth.  These authors wrote:
The words “access to justice” are not easily defined but they focus on two basic purposes of the legal system – the system by which people may vindicate their rights and/or resolve their disputes under the general auspices of the state.  First, the system must be equally accessible to all; second, it must lead to results that are individually and socially just.
— Mauro Cappelletti and Bryant Garth, “Access to Justice: The Newest Wave in the Worldwide Movement to Make Rights Effective,” 27 BUFF. L. REV. 182 (1978)

What role do the California public law libraries play in achieving access to justice?

Law librarians and law libraries have a keen interest in and a duty to promote access to justice in the various law libraries in which we work, be they academic, firm, state, court and county, or special. We have the knowledge, skills, and resources to provide self-represented litigants with needed information and assistance and provide referrals to legal resources in the community.

It is important to distinguish between providing information and engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, however, e.g., giving legal advice. It is also important to maintain impartiality and neutrality.  Access to justice includes affordable legal services; readily available legal information and forms; the ability to bring a case to trial without hiring an attorney; the unbundling of legal services; fair treatment and equality in the justice system regardless of social standing; and confidence that the outcome will be fair and just.  It is all these things and more.

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