How Free is Your Law?

Ever thought about that? If you wanted to know what laws applied to you – your small business, your child’s school, your commute – where would you look? You’re not going to go to a lawyer right off the bat, are you? Of course not! We tell our doctors what to prescribe us, we tell our teachers how to educate our children (who are oh-so-different and precious), we tell politicians/sports coaches how to do their jobs better, and we sure want to know what laws our lawyer should research when we meet with him. So where would you start in your own jurisdiction?

Start off easy.  Can you find where your local court’s opinions are published (or even find an explanation of what your jurisdiction’s court system looks like)?  Are they published anywhere?  If they are, can you find any cases prior to . . . say . . . 2000?  Fortunately, a lot of courts picked up on the Internet as being more than a flash in the pan and started to save electronic copies of their opinions.  The good news is that, because of the way the common law works, you can often find the precedential “trunk” issued long in the past by seeing one of the recently issued “branches” of a particular area of law.

So perhaps you’ve got case law available (a) at your highest court’s Web site, (b) your local public library or (c) a law library that is publicly accessible.

What about your legislative authority?  These guys are politicians so they were slower on the uptake.  They didn’t miss the importance of the Internet, they just didn’t realize it applied to them.  Statutory authority is a moving target.  Unlike precedent, it can change each year and you don’t know what it looked like in the past.  And legislative bodies aren’t necessarily spending any time or money helping you to find out.  If you are fortunate to have your legislature’s acts available electronically, hopefully they are starting to keep an archive of the historical acts they’ve taken.

Now, your executive authorities!  Regulations from the agency governing street signs, city ordinances covering barking dogs, etc.  This is often where the rubber meets the road in the legal world, and yet they are often harder to find than your legislative enactments.

Do you have all of this available to you?  Can you walk into your public library with the goal of finding “the laws that apply to me in X situtation” and feel like you’re going to find anything more than a jurisdiction-generic NOLO Press or Self-Counsel Canada book?  As a law librarian, I have to say that’s not a bad place to start but at some point someone will have to know what the law is and whether it’s changed since the book was published.

If you are going to be an informed consumer of legal services, shouldn’t you have access to those laws too?  Not that the judges or elected officials will make them easy for you to understand and use, but at least you should be able to get them.  You’re paying for them to be created and given to for-profit publishers; you should be able to get free access yourself.