The debate about how to improve access to justice most often discusses what lawyers and court institutions can do.
There is another potential player: law libraries. In Canada, a few law libraries offer legal information services to the general public. But there does not seem to be much coordination of these efforts or much analysis of the contributions law libraries can and should be making.
South of the border, the attempt to address this question appears to have been more ambitious, though there is still a long way to go.
For example, the American Association of Law Libraries recently released a report of a special committee it formed on Law Libraries and Access to Justice.
It describes how law libraries can foster greater access to justice in society:
“From the earliest days of their profession, law librarians have facilitated access to legal information. At first, their services were extended primarily to judges, legislators, and attorneys, but in the last part of the 20th century, the public came to rely on public law librarians to locate information to assist them in handling their own cases, without the assistance of counsel. The number of self-represented litigants accessing the courts continues to grow rapidly. For many self-represented litigants, who may not have civil legal aid available to them, attorneys’ fees can be a burdensome expense. Still, they may find the legal system to be highly complex and often more favorable to those parties with sufficient resources, such as the benefit of counsel. In spite of this, the number of self-represented litigants accessing the courts is rapidly growing. ”
“The Access to Justice movement challenges society to seek ways to educate citizens about the law and legal procedure, expand the appearance of counsel to those most in need, and provide information and programs for those handling their own cases. By providing a wide array of services, the movement hopes to allow disadvantaged and self-represented litigants to gain a more equitable foothold when resolving disputes with those parties who bear greater resources.”
“As the principal providers of legal information, law libraries are an indispensable part of the services that can be provided to those with legal needs. Law libraries make ‘The Law’ available, and law librarians serve as guides to finding the most relevant legal information. Some may think that only court librarians can play a role in fostering access to justice. While it is true that they have such a core responsibility, law school and private firm libraries, by fostering the rule of law, can also be leaders in promoting access to justice in their communities.”
“The goal of this White Paper is to outline in detail the many valuable ways in which law libraries can take an active part in improving access to justice. It should serve as an important guide for stakeholders in the Access to Justice community as they consider the implementation of services to benefit those in need.”