Law Libraries Accept the SRL Challenge

Law Libraries Accept the SRL Challenge

Law Libraries Accept the SRL Challenge

This week’s blog is written by Annette Demers[1], Acting Law Librarian and Sessional Lecturer, University of Windsor, Melanie Hodges Neufeld, Director of Legal Resources, Law Society of Saskatchewan, and Dale Barrie, Information, Research and Training Services (IRTS) Manager, Alberta Law Libraries. We welcome the input of guest bloggers and send a big thank you to Annette, Melanie and Dale for this very pertinent blog as we close off our month of focus on Legal Education and SRLs.

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As legal information professionals, we were not surprised to learn that 13% of SRL in the National SRL Project, without prompting, reported having sought out or received assistance from a library as one resource in their quest for the information necessary to pursue their case

This is a great opportunity for persons who are interested in issues surrounding self-represented litigants to understand how important libraries are as one of the tools in the toolbox for SRLs.

Access to Legal Information

As legal professionals know, having access to legal information is absolutely essential in preparing a case. This need is amplified for SRLs, who have not received even the basic legal education which underpins the knowledge base of all practitioners. In the information age, a SRL has access to statutes, rules, regulations, forms and judicial decisions, as well as helpful guides from many Ministry websites. While these are extremely useful to all users, they are still intimidating to SRLs, who may not have much of an understanding of the basics necessary to navigate these information sources, including questions of jurisdiction, common law v. statute, administrative law processes, and other procedural rules.

More than professional users, SRLs will require commentary that helps to explain the operation of the law to them. Such commentary is generally not available for free online. Accordingly, the library becomes an important resource. The librarians can provide both general and specialized textbooks, as well as a variety of tools to help SRLs situate themselves. Importantly librarians can, to some degree, help a SRL understand how statutes, rules, regulations and case law intersect, and so some interactions with SRL might involve basic teaching, and assistance in locating tools necessary to bridge gaps in their understanding. Many SRL also report to the SRL Project that they greatly appreciate the patience and personal attendance that librarians provide to them.

SRLs in Libraries

SRL are frequent patrons of libraries, and in particular, law libraries. The people that we speak to are often those who are unable to afford a lawyer and who are hopeful that they can make it through the system alone. We receive visits from SRLs working on all types of matters; from a citizen defending a traffic ticket on their own; to an immigrant with language barriers attempting to complete business forms; persons working on small claims matters or family matters; and ultimately individuals trying to tackle real, complex and serious life issues with no guidance or legal knowledge whatsoever. Often, people have given money to a lawyer and feel disillusioned by the services provided, or they could not afford to continue paying for legal services. Some are just starting out on their quest, and our role is to try to provide them with a referral to someone who can help them.

Regardless of the type of SRL that we encounter, providing service to them is something that many libraries must prepare for. Most law libraries will have a mandate or policy that specifies our primary patron groups – for example, academic law libraries primarily serve law students and law professors, while court house libraries primarily serve judges and lawyers. For some libraries, SRL may not be serviced at all as a result. In many libraries SRL are given limited priority, with scarce library resources being targeted to meet the needs of our primary users.

Different Law Library Settings

The present response to SRLs differs between different library settings. There are limited examples of libraries that are specifically mandated to serve the needs of SRL. Examples would be prison libraries and Public Legal Education resource centers.[2]

Academic libraries have traditionally been required to give public access to our collections as a result of the “depository library system”. As a depository or partial depository of government publications, we are required to give public access to our collections.

Libraries that are located in our courthouses often receive visits from SRL. Some SRLs come to the library at the beginning of their quest for information and assistance. Other times, people come to the courthouse library after feeling that they have exhausted all other avenues and that they still lack the information they need. Positioned within the courthouse, library staff witness what can be termed the ‘ping pong effect’. SRLs are often seeking help filling in court forms and are referred to the library by court staff for that help. In some provinces – for example, Saskatchewan – none of this type of assistance is available in the courthouses. This is an area where different service providers could co-operate to better serve the needs of SRLs.

Public libraries may also be an important source of legal information for the public. Whereas most law libraries primarily collect very specialized professional textbooks and materials intended for legal professionals, public libraries will purchase books specifically designed to assist the layperson with legal matters. The Winnipeg Public Library actually offers a speaker series entitled “Law in the Library”; its sessions are presented in partnership with the local Community Legal Education Association (CLEA).[3] They will soon be offering a new service for legal referrals and advice that will be provided by law students who are overseen by practicing lawyers. The drop in service would allow for people to ask questions and receive advice and direction (and is not intended to replace legal services or to function as a second opinion for those already with the services of a lawyer).

The Calgary Public Library has a similar series (“Law at Your Library”) partnering with outside organizations such as Calgary Legal Guidance. They also host an annual event called “Law Connect” which gives attendees access to legal information from community agencies and free, confidential advice from volunteer lawyers.

All libraries have policies in place that outline how the public can obtain a library card, what materials may be checked out of the library and for how long. Even our licenses for online resources often contain provisions about whether the product can be used by a member of the public, and how the product can be accessed.

Libraries with special mandates to serve the public

Some law libraries will have a special mandate to serve the public, and this is primarily related to how the library is funded. For example, the Law Foundations of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, created under their respective Legal Professions Acts, identify law libraries as intended recipients for funding.[4] In addition, contributing to the legal knowledge and education of the general public are identified as targets by these Foundations. The recipient libraries in turn have a responsibility to provide services and collections that benefit the public. Limits to the services provided to SRLs are also described. For instance, neither Courthouse Libraries BC, Alberta Law Libraries, of Law Society of Saskatchewan Libraries identify the public as eligible book borrowers. In short, members of the public are able to access materials in the library, but are not permitted to take the materials out of the library.

Examples of services provided to members of the public by Alberta Law Libraries include the “Ask a Law Librarian” email reference service, library tours, 30 minute legal research instruction sessions, web-based research guides and the delivery of partnered programs at local public libraries (eg. “Law at Your Library: Legal Information – Beyond the Basics” with Calgary Public Library)[5]. Courthouse Libraries BC have similar services in place, including a series of openly accessible training videos and their online legal information portal “Clicklaw”, which “provides a unified point of access to the many and diverse sources of public legal education and information (PLEI) in British Columbia.”[6]

Besides offering similar services, the Law Society of Saskatchewan Libraries has invested heavily in providing free, publically accessible case law on CanLII. In the last year, Saskatchewan coverage of CanLII has been increased to include almost complete coverage of reported decisions back to 1907. Thousands of case summaries and commentaries have also been created by the library and provided to CanLII Connects. The use of social media, such as the Library’s blog Legal Sourcery[7], has also proven to be an effective tool for reaching the public.

Challenges in serving SRLs

In the particular setting of a courthouse library, the most apparent and obvious challenge to serving SRLs is ensuring that they understand that the library is in the business of providing legal information, and not legal advice. This challenge has two parts, as the law librarian must ensure that those who come to the courthouse library clearly understand what it is that the library/librarian cannot do, and at the same time effectively explain what it is that they can do for a SRL.

This challenge is complicated by the fact that at times people hear the phrase “I cannot give you legal advice,” and think that it translates to “I cannot help you.” Although the law librarian may not have the expertise to offer legal advice, they do have the expertise to help people find resources containing practical information on their legal issue, they can direct individuals to forms and precedents, provide instructions on how to locate legislation and case law using both print and electronic resources, and direct people to other organizations with specific expertise and more.

People usually want quick, simple and straightforward answers to their questions, and naturally, we are not always able to satisfy such requests. As a result, the first job of the law librarian is often to stress the fact that answers to legal questions are frequently unclear and that there may not be a straightforward answer to a particular question. With the aim of providing superior client service, the challenge then becomes one of making people comfortable as they try to navigate what can be a complicated and intimidating system.

Educating the public on the ways in which the law library can assist them with their legal issue is something that must be considered both within and beyond the walls of the physical library and courthouse. Those SRLs who elect to engage the services of the library must understand the limits of the services we can offer, while those who are unaware of the legal information services available to them may miss out on a resource that could prove immensely useful. Outreach services and partnership programs are one way in which libraries can raise awareness of the services available to SRLs, especially those that may have a special mandate to serve the public.

In addition to educating SRLs on what law libraries have to offer, there is the practical challenge of dealing with an ever-growing SRL population. As the number of SRLs grows, so does the burden on our already stretched resources. Promoting access to justice is not the exclusive responsibility of law libraries. We need to determine the responsibilities of law libraries and the responsibilities of other providers. Can these duties be coordinated to result in better access for SRLs and cost efficiencies for all?

New approaches: the future of libraries in assisting SRLs

Much effort is required in order to ensure that SRLs and the larger public understand that the law library is a resource available to them. Through partnerships with other public service providers such as public libraries, Legal Guidance or other pro bono agencies, the law library will benefit through increased exposure, and SRLs will ultimately benefit by learning how to access a significant resource that is freely available to them. Integration with other court service providers and general awareness raising campaigns will help to ensure that proper referrals are made, and that SRLs can be provided with the option of accessing information resources that may prove to be very useful to them.   Additional partnerships may also be pursued to more efficiently deliver legal information to SRLs. In Saskatchewan, the Law Society Library has been exploring options for a more coordinated approach with several other legal information providers.

The law library must also continue to increase its role in the development and provision of information available online via library and court websites. By employing best practices in website design and usability, using plain-language approaches in developing public legal education and information tools, and by engaging people in multiple places and in multiple formats, the law library will increasingly be seen as a destination for anyone with a legal information need.

An important challenge for the legal profession is building public awareness about the variety of tools available to SRLs, including law librarians and the services and materials that they provide.

[1]   Thanks also to Kathleen Williams, Administrative Coordinator of Community Outreach and Marketing, Winnipeg Public Library, and to Kevin E. Jenkins, Librarian, Ontario Workplace Tribunals Library, for their contributions to this piece.

[2] See for example, Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta, online: A list of public legal education organizations is available through: Supreme Court of Canada, “Public Legal Information Organizations”, online: Accessed October 28 2014.

[3]   Community Legal Education Association (CLEA), online: Accessed October 28 2014.

[4] Alberta Law Foundation, “About Us”, online: , the Law Foundation of British Columbia, “About Us”, online:     & Saskatchewan, The Legal Profession Act, 1990, S.S. 1990-91, c. L-10.1, online:  Accessed October, 24, 2014 .

[5] See: &

[6] See Courthouse Libraries BC, “Clicklaw”, online: Accessed October 24, 2014.

[7]  Law Society of Saskatchewan Library, “Legal Sourcery: Navigating Legal Resources”, online: Accessed October 28, 2014.


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Comments (6)

  • J Kirby INwood

    Interesting discussion of the obvious which only an ivory tower academic could produce. Suggest you talk to real people about the system and how it is designed to protect lawyers incomes. You failed to mention a vital online source such as Canlii. provides basic information to our thousands of visitors every month. We average 85,000 visitors. How many does your library get? You probably have more staff than visitors at any time. At least that is what I see at the Osgoode law library
    Anyway, while you wallow in your grants producing platitudes and useless studies, realize that real people need help but are not getting it.

    I see nothing productive whatsoever emanating from your site.

    October 31, 2014 at 2:37 pm
  • sandra olson

    I was a slr, and I did access the law library as well. little good it did me. when the courts refuse to follow their own rules, it doesn’t matter if you know the rules or the cases. the courts can and do, still just insult you and throw you out. it was a complete waste of my time. I would have had the same outcome if I had drew pictures of sofas on a piece of paper and handed it in to the courts,. I would have been thrown out, and I was, even with the work and the access to the law courts.

    October 31, 2014 at 4:23 pm
  • Law Libraries Accept the SRL Challenge « Legal Sourcery

    […] From the The National Self-Represented Litigants Project:  Law Libraries Accept the SRL Challenge. […]

    October 31, 2014 at 7:37 pm
  • Janet Freeman

    Courthouse Libraries BC has partnered with BC public libraries since 2007 to provide annual grants for libraries to add to their legal information collections, as well as collection development advice and training in legal reference skills.. See LawMatters at your local public library . A similar program was run by BC Legal Services Society from 1975 to 2002.

    November 3, 2014 at 10:46 pm
  • Chris Jones

    Dear RYC,

    Excellent post – thx! I note that the Edmonton Community Legal Centre (similar to CPLEA in Calgary) is also offering evening seminars on various Family Law topics (and has been for the past 2 years according to my recollection) . More info here =>

    However as our NON-LEGAL group ECMAS has been operating a Support Group for NC Parents for 20+ years – many of our users are SRL – and I can say the the staff at the Edmonton Law Courts – FLIC (Family Law Info Center upstairs in teh Library) are excellent and so long as they are not dealing with too many people – have always offered common-sense, actionable information, resources and ideas to many of our users.

    Otherwise – anyone is welcome to attend our Support Group, every Tues from 7-9pm in Rm#221 (second Floor Community Room) at Bonnie Doon Mall (8330-82 Ave, Edmonton AB)

    Chris Jones
    ECMAS Treasurer 2014/15

    November 7, 2014 at 8:39 pm
  • Jack Harper

    After years of representing myself I finally stepped up and got the only course in the world geared to SRL’s.

    Lots of lawyers out there would do well to get it too.

    November 13, 2014 at 4:59 am

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