Access to legal information is the lifeblood of our profession. In a common law system where interpretation of precedent determines the outcome of issues, the fair and efficient implementation of justice relies on both sides having access to the legal information which decisions are made. Cases are not just won in the court, they are won in the lead-up, the research and the library. Access to requisite print and digital resources, case law and research assistance can level the playing field to help provide access to justice.
Lawyer competency is largely founded on access and dissemination of information. It cannot be that only the largest firms have access to the most resources. Solo practitioners and small firms need equal access to ensure that justice is accessible to all and not just those with the most resources.
For over a hundred years, law libraries across Ontario have provided access to these materials, and the requisite research skills of librarian, to level the playing field and allow access to justice for the greatest number of people. Most Ontarians who seek legal advice will do so from a solo or small firm. Limiting access to information and resources, by limiting libraries, bars access to justice.
While some may think that the onset of COVID-19 has shifted the demand for legal information services, this shift in the way lawyers access legal information has been underway for years. Lawyers research differently now. Demand for electronic resources has increased significantly and the type of texts requested has shifted. Electronic resources have increased accessibility to a larger pool of research, but the need for guidance in how to sort through this highlights the important need for a navigator in this journey — a librarian.
Access to digital resources continues to become more expensive. Shared access through libraries allows lawyers to do their jobs more effectively. Compare the cost of a single digital subscription or even a single book, to the cost of a membership in a local law association and the resources they provide. It is no contest. Add on the effective assistance of a trained research professional in the person of a librarian and you have one of the most cost-effective systems in existence. Law libraries play a fundamental role in ensuring access to justice, regardless of the socioeconomic status of clients or their lawyers. Library staff perform targeted research at little or no cost to the litigants. Libraries provide lawyers with low-cost research which allows them to serve underprivileged persons.
Good libraries build communities. A library is not just a place to fund a book, but a place to find support. Lawyers face stressors unique to their work which increase their vulnerability for mental health issues. The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) has said as much. Law libraries provide spaces for mentorship, connecting with colleagues, taking breaks between appearances in court and obtaining substantive support from expert library staff and colleagues. These strategies have been expressly identified by the LSO as contributing positively to lawyer mental health.
The LSO has stated two of its strategic goals as 1) ensuring competence and quality of service; and 2) access to justice. Law libraries are key, inexpensive and efficient ways of achieving these goals. Last year, budgets contracted as a result of concerns during COVID. However, demand for information resources by lawyers did not contract. They grew.
Lawyers have been more reliant on their libraries, and their library staff, during the pandemic, even as they attend physically on a less frequent basis. The ease of access has encouraged lawyers to utilize resources differently. As we move past COVID, the return to in-person attendances and the support libraries provide for lawyers in research, mental health and ensuring competency is needed more than ever.
Further funding to support continued modernization, electronic access and resources, and bringing the system together as a whole, is needed. Benchers should take heed of this as the new year’s budgets are set. Supporting legal information supports the public, but also lawyers themselves. The LSO has a mandate to help both. The recommendations of the Library Information Resource Network (LIRN), and its skills-based board, should be supported to make sure that Ontario’s 47 county and district Law Libraries can continue their important work in supporting lawyers and the people of Ontario whom they serve.
Nathan Baker is a criminal defence lawyer in Peterborough, Ont., and is a sole practitioner at Nathan Baker Law. He takes special interest in impaired driving cases, especially those involving drug impaired driving and impaired boating. E-mail him at email@example.com.