I was very excited to read Jim's post here the other day about SHLEP, the movement by David Giacalone boosting self-help for pro se. Jim and I have had discussions in the past about how helpful assistance in research can really be for pro se people. He is right that there are people who want to represent themselves in court whose problems are way, way beyond the help of a law library (or a lawyer, for that matter!). But in my experience, there are also people who are intelligent, sane, literate and want to represent themselves (or have to, because they can't afford a lawyer). Some of my patrons in this category went on to win their cases, and resolve their legal difficulties. It's very wrong to dismiss the entire self-help movement and all attempts to make legal information more broadly available, locatable and intelligible on the basis of the (sadly many) patrons who believe Mars is broadcasting directly into their brain.
I think law librarians have a role to play in this movement. AALL's special interest sections, LISP (Legal Information Services to the Public) (link) and Social Responsibilities (link) both are filled with librarians who are dedicated to making the legal process work for every day people. Their websites include helpful projects and resources on self-help. LISP for instance, has the Public Library Toolkit, designed to help public libraries in every state make informed decisions about what resources they need on law topics and how to help patrons use them. There also is a great powerpoint presentation at the LISP site on “Pioneers in Self-Help: A 21st Century Vision for Libraries, Self-help Centers, Legal Aid Websites and Pro Bono Partners” presented at AALL 2006.
A second powerpoint at the LISP site, also from 2006, looks at partnerships around the country supporting self-representers. One page discusses unbundling legal services as a trend that some practicing lawyers are embracing. That phrase is used to describe lawyers offering an array of support services to clients who don't need or want the whole attorney-client bundle. So they might contract to just give advice, or help with research or assist with drafting pleadings or transactional papers. There seem to be organized support systems in California, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC. The courts in Arizona were pioneers with kiosks and forms designed to help pro se folks file certain types of actions. There are actually a number of projects underway in various places, some partnerships of court systems and local libraries and bar associations.
While there are some of us whose jobs do not allow us to work with pro se patrons, or limit the parameters of the help we can offer, there are others working in public law school, state, court and county law libraries which have that as a core value of their organzation. AALL's State, Court & County Special Interest Section webpage link includes helpful links to free legal research sources which they recommend. There are regular programs at law library conferences on assisting the pro se or pro per patron. The ticklish balance between providing the in-depth help needed by non-lawyers to do the research and treading into the forbidden "practicing" zone is a frequent topic.
There are already many blog entries, web pages and pdf files on library pages that explain in plain language how to do certain kinds of research. Some include helpful links to free web resources, others list the print resources that will be needed, and explain that the sources are at public libraries as well as law libraries open to the public. The NOLO Press books are great resources for self-help folks as well link here. I am not sure what Giacalone has in mind for his co-editors to do. But I think his project should be an interesting one for librarians, and court administrators as well. While the bar associations tend to be wary of programs that encourage self-representation, the courts, and many librarians are seeing so many folks out there are self-representing whether they are encouraged or not. It definitely makes the court run more smoothly if the pro se folks get a level of support from the system.
We the librarians support We the People!