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Public Access to Legal Information

(October 1999)

By Barbara Bonge

In our free society, citizens expect to be able to find and read the text of the law made by the Legislature, courts and administrative bodies. Homeowners expect to be able to see the zoning regulations affecting their property. Parents hearing a news story about a Supreme Court decision regarding a school's liability for sexual harassment expect to be able to read the decision for themselves. A person wanting to get some idea of his or her legal situation before consulting an attorney expects to find relevant information.

As an attorney, you know where to find such information, but may not realize that the average citizen, unfamiliar with legal research, will likely have difficulty. Would you know, if asked by a client or a friend, where in your community he or she could find Michigan statutes or U.S. Supreme Court decisions or other legal research information?

Attorneys should not view these forays by members of the public into legal information as attempts to forgo legal counsel, but rather as opportunities to create a better informed public, who can then be better informed clients. The average nonlawyer soon realizes that legal research much beyond the sort of situations just described is complicated and will turn to an attorney. Thus, an attorney should not be reluctant but prepared to direct a nonlawyer to a good source for legal information.

The traditional place to find legal information is a library-a place with physical shelving and books, not the cyberspace virtual sort. Open the current Michigan Bar Journal directory issue to pages 198 to 200, and you will find a guide to Michigan law libraries and other Michigan libraries with law collections, compiled by members of the Libraries, Legal Resources and Publications Committee. The guide consists of two lists: the first lists law libraries, some of which are not open to the public, and the second, general libraries with law collections that are open to the public.1

So, how likely are average citizens to be able to find legal information in libraries in their communities? The law library list shows that citizens of the three Michigan cities with law schools, Ann Arbor, Detroit and Lansing/East Lansing, are well served with law libraries. All five of the law school libraries are open to the public, although there may be some restrictions as to study areas or circulation of materials. (Indeed, the law school libraries have each accepted the role of being a U.S. government document depository library, receiving federal government documents without cost, and, as such, must allow public access.) All of them have reference librarians who are knowledgeable in legal research and used to getting the occasional question from a member of the public.

Citizens of communities with a university may also find a good law collection (even if there is not a law school associated with the university) because several academic areas, such as history, criminal justice, the social sciences, and business, require legal research sources. Thus, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan Technological University, Northern Michigan University, and Western Michigan University have law collections. Some colleges, for example, Alma College, Southwestern Michigan College, and Walsh College, have law collections. The University of Michigan and Michigan State University, in addition to the law school libraries, have law collections in their central libraries and business school libraries.

Almost all of the college and university libraries listed are U.S. Government Document Depository libraries (depository libraries are noted with a bullet on the library listings). This assures they will have certain law materials, since all depository libraries must have a core collection that includes the U.S. Code, Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Register, and U.S. Reports. A depository library may choose to have some of these materials online rather than in book form or choose to have an equivalent commercial version. Further, some of these libraries are also Michigan government document depositories and thus, will have, at a minimum, Michigan Public and Local Acts, the Michigan Administrative Code and Michigan Register.

Community college libraries may have law materials, especially if the school has a paralegal program. Henry Ford Community College, Macomb Community College, and Oakland Community College are on the list as having law collections. Other community colleges may have at least some Michigan law resources.

For many Michiganians, going to any of the libraries discussed so far would entail at least a few hours trip. Shouldn't finding the legal information that so directly affects their lives be easier than that? In fact, many citizens look first to their local public library as the logical place to find this information. If public libraries could be counted on for a basic law collection, widespread access to a minimal level of legal information would be assured, but this is not the case. Only public libraries in the larger cities-Detroit, Dearborn, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Saginaw and Southfield-and a few smaller cities such as Benton Harbor, Clinton Township (Macomb County Library), Farmington, Monroe (Monroe County Library System), and Port Huron (St. Clair County Library) have law collections.

There are difficulties inherent in public libraries having law collections. Law materials cost a great deal and generally entail expensive updating. The most expensive materials are those secondary legal research resources, such as encyclopedias, digests and annotated statutes that can make the basic primary materials usable and understandable. The price of even one reporter volume could buy many children's books; given a limited budget, many public libraries find the expenditures for law materials hard to justify when balanced against all the other reading and reference needs that the public library serves.

Furthermore, public library staff at libraries with small law collections are not as familiar as law library staff with updating law materials; thus the updating materials may not be filed promptly or correctly in such a public library. Finally, the reference librarians at smaller public libraries generally receive little, if any, training in legal research materials, and any training received may be difficult to remember when so much of the reference work in a public library involves knowledge in a myriad of other fields.

Yet, public librarians recognize the need for making law resources available to their libraries' users and wish to better fill this need. To help meet the desire for more knowledge about collecting and using legal research sources, several members of the Libraries, Legal Resources and Publications Committee will be presenting a program-"Funding Legal Information on a Shoestring"-at the Michigan Library Association's annual meeting in November. This program and other similar links between lawyers or law librarians and public librarians should strengthen public libraries as sources for answering at least the simpler legal information questions from nonlawyers.

The law library list includes yet another type of law library some of the public can look to, county law libraries. Michigan's Constitution, Const 1963, art 8, _ 9, provides for a portion of all penal fines to go to county law libraries.2 MCL 600.4851; MSA 27A.4851 specifies the amount in each county that must be set aside for the county law library. You might expect then that a citizen should readily find a county law library in any Michigan county. While some counties provide a good, publicly available law library, in others, the county law library facility is not very large or readily available to the public; even local attorneys have trouble stating where the county law library is or when it is open.

The Oakland County Law Library is a shining example of a well-supported county law library. Its collection includes statutes, case law and court rules for all 50 states, as well as encyclopedias, practice manuals and treatises; even research via CD-ROM is available to the public. The library is staffed by a law librarian and four paralegals. From September to June, the hours include two weekday evenings and Saturdays.

Two other counties have taken innovative approaches to their county law libraries. In Kalamazoo County, about a year ago, the county law library was moved into a room in the Kalamazoo Public Library and is open the same hours. The public library staffs the law library. In addition to Michigan materials and township and city ordinances, the library has the National Reporter System, ALR, and Am Jur 2d. Because the public library is near the courthouse and many attorneys' offices, it readily serves their needs as well.

Ten years ago in Grand Traverse County, the Bar Association joined with the Traverse Area District Library and the 13th Judicial Circuit Court to hire a part-time worker to manage Bar Association activities and to oversee the county law library. This allowed the law library, which is in the courthouse, to be open to the public from noon to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays. The result of the team effort is that the library has grown to include CD-Roms and computers as well as a much larger book collection. The public library's staff is familiar with the county law library resource and directs citizens needing law materials to that library.

Similar joint efforts of public libraries and county law libraries would bring more assured public access to law collections with knowledgeable staff. Local bar associations, as in Traverse City, could be a strong force in promoting such efforts.

A giant leap in public access to legal information has come via the Internet, in the form of a virtual library. Much federal law can be found on the Internet (see, for example, http://www.infoctr.edu/ill/). Michigan Supreme Court opinions from October 1996 and Court of Appeals opinions from August 1996 are on ICLE's website.

Michigan government is actively adding legal information to the Internet. Presently, the Michigan Legislative Service Bureau has the Michigan Compiled Laws on their website: www.michiganlegislature.org The Michigan Administrative Code can be found at http://www.state.mi.us/execoff/admincode/ the Michigan Register should be ''up'' by 2001. Current legislative bills can be found and tracked on the Internet; bill analyses are also available.

Internet resources can bring ready access to legal information to all Michigan citizens. Even those without home computers should be able to get access at their public library. However, it may be some time before earlier Michigan case law is available at a free website, and the Internet lacks secondary legal research tools.

A public library website could be a good starting point for nonlawyers to find legal materials on the Internet. A good way for public libraries, especially smaller ones, to help the average citizen find legal information would be by developing guides to finding legal information on the Internet. (Such a guide on a law firm's website might also be a very useful service to clients.) The Internet guide on Muskegon's Hackley Public Library's website: www.muskegon.k12.mi.us/library/govinfo.htm is an example of such an effort.

To summarize, although they are mostly in large urban areas, Michigan has many law libraries and libraries with law collections that give the public access to legal information. Attorneys should familiarize themselves with what is available locally. Greater development of county law libraries, especially in conjunction with public libraries, could bring much wider access. Legal information sites on the Internet offer the prospect of universal access, which could be greatly aided with development of guides to Internet legal information on public library websites. Someday access to legal information could be only a click away for any citizen.

Footnotes

1 This guide is believed to include most of the libraries of the types described at the head of each list, but does not claim to be definitive. Suggestions of other libraries that should be on the lists would be appreciated. To suggest other libraries, you may contact the author of this article at (517) 373-3840.

2 MCL 257.909; MSA 9.2609 and MCL 600.8831; MSA 27A.8831 provide for the fines from civil infractions to be included as part of the penal fines.

Barbara McDowell Bonge, a member of the Libraries, Legal Research, & Publications Committee, is the librarian for the Michigan Court of Appeals. She has also worked at the court as a research attorney. Previously, she was a librarian at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and the University of Michigan Law School. She received her AMLS degree from the University of Michigan in 1971 and her JD from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1987.

     

 

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