Ever since I set up a shingle four years ago to consult independently, I have been asked periodically as to whether I do legal research. Most recently, a few people have asked if this is a service I provide for the public. My response until now has been that I really don’t know of anyone who does any substantive legal research for the public. It would be great to have the great collective mind of the Slaw community work on a solution since it is something I haven’t been able to crack myself.
Some libraries (public and academic) may be able to direct the public to hard copy sources for their research or retrieve specific documents from online sources. Earlier this year I also asked my colleagues via the law library listservs as to who does independent Canadian legal research. Most who responded positively and were willing to do so unfortunately did not have their own licensing arrangement with the commercial vendors and would have to rely on the requester to provide access.
Where does this leave the general public? In addition to pro se litigants, I can imagine there are likely historians and scholars doing research leading to the writing of reports and historical treatises. And possibly other types of research, too. How do they do it??
The challenge of providing any kind of substantial legal research from online sources for the general public seems a tad insurmountable:
- Typically Canadian online commercial legal research sources are made available by flat rate subscription, not transactional fees. My perception has been that this would make setting up a legal research service prohibitively expensive for someone working independently.
- Much as with in-person inquiries at libraries when the public look for research in hard copy sources, emphasis would need to be placed on explaining that no interpretation by the online searcher could take place (well, unless the searcher was also an insured lawyer willing to take on the risk). I wonder how meaningful search results would be if no interpretation could take place? An approach to this would need to be taken and policies would need to be put in place.
- Liability would be a huge issue. When law librarians do legal research for client files in a law firm setting, it is understood that the lawyer on the file is ultimately taking responsibility for the results found and their interpretation. And is insured for this responsibility.
I was brainstorming some ideas with Liana Giovando (a newly-minted fellow independent law librarian), and this is what we have come up with so far:
- A consortium of some sort might be best to take this on rather than one or two independent consultants. Having the backing and resources of a larger group would go a long way to mitigate the costs and liability.
- Alternatively, perhaps a law firm would take this on as a service, providing the backing in terms of liability, providing the service of lawyers to review (and interpret?) search results.
- If commercial legal research sources are prohibitively expensive, then perhaps research could be done solely from publicly available sources such as CanLII, advising the research requester of the difference between free and fee sources.
- Access to a library with hard copy resources would also be needed to supplement the online research. Would it be acceptable to use a public library resources for this type of (presumably paid) service, or would an agreement need to be made with an existing law library to give access? Perhaps access to a number of otherwise private libraries would be needed.
That is as far as I’ve gotten with thinking this through. The next step is to determine whether there is a real need for such a service. Is this something that comes up only periodically, or frequently? What types of requests are there? Is it worth setting up such a service and what would be the business model? Thought would also need to be given as to how to deliver this type of service and how to market it.
I invite you to share your thoughts and suggestions, especially something that will move these ideas forward (I’ve already got lots on the negative side, thank you). Is there a service like this already that I have not yet found? How could one be set up? Would you be willing and able to help move this forward?