Evaluating Legal Information Websites
The vast amount of legal information widely available through the Web includes helpful and relevant material, but also inaccurate, biased, or just plain incorrect information. It is important to be certain of the reliability of the information you provide to your patron.
Librarians are taught to evaluate information sources, in many formats, for reliability. The same criteria for assessing the reliability of a general web source apply to legal information sources. There are additional, perhaps more specific, criteria that should be applied in determining whether web-based legal information is good to pass on to your patron.
The following are practice tips to use when evaluating a legal information web source:Authority
- Who is responsible for the content?
- Is the author and/or body responsible for the content clearly identified?
- Is the author and/or body a reliable source? Comment: Official law comes from governmental bodies (see: Maryland Public Library Toolkit under government structure and sources of law). Websites authored by the originating government body for that law is a highly reliable source. There are other reliable sources, including reputable educational (law school) or community (not-for-profit legal aid groups) organizations. Evaluate these on a case-by-case basis. Try to think about whether the source has a potential bias (see Objectivity, below). Think about how much getting the information right means to the author. For example, a law firm blog has a vested interest in posting correct information, as they would not want to misinform potential clients.
- Is there a bias present that could impact the reliability or usefulness? (see Authority, above)
- Is more than one argument or side presented? Comment: Suppose your patron is a landlord with a question about a situation with a tenant. Many of the information sites on the web are written from the tenant's viewpoint. This might make the information less helpful to your landlord patron.
- Does the source provide citations so you can verify the information? Comment: Suppose a patron asks what constitutes an official will in the state of Maryland. You find a source that states that, for a Maryland will to be official, it must be signed and witnessed. However, beyond the statement itself, the source does not point you to where the law actually says that - no Maryland Code citation, no reference to any cases or regulations. Nice though the statement is, with no citation backup you cannot verify the information as true, and so cannot rely on that source.
- Does the source include the appropriate material for your need? Keep in mind there are different kinds of law (statutes, regulations, cases, etc.), resources (official or unofficial), and multiple jurisdictions. Comment: If your patron asks for statutory law, and the fabulous site you found talks about the State Department of Education's regulations on the issue, you may not be finding coverage of what the patron wants. Similarly, if your patron asks for Maryland law on an issue, and the site you found discusses Delaware law, you are not finding the proper coverage.
- When was the information written?
- Is there an indication of the last update or review of the information on the page? Comment: Laws change all the time, and legal situations may rise or fall on whether the law in place at that time applied. If someone asks for the current law on an issue, and you find what looks like a wonderful site with statutory text and explanations, but the date indicates the page was last updated in 2007, clearly this is not reliable and accurate for the situation.