VALUE OF A PUBLIC LAW LIBRARY: How County Law Librarians in Pennsylvania Collaborated with Courts to Provide Services to Self-Represented Litigants
Two Pennsylvania law librarians, Eleanor Gerlott from Lancaster County Law Library, and Melanie Solon from Berks County Law Library, described how they and other county law librarians collaborated with the courts to provide services for pro se litigants in their counties. Eleanor established a separate self-help center in her courthouse, while Melanie handled pro se questions by handing out informational packets and forms. They described the process they went though and gave hints on what worked well for them. They also pointed out some sticking points and problems that they encountered.
Both Eleanor and Melanie found public use in their libraries increasing and were asked the same questions repeatedly. In response, both worked with their chief judges to establish a task force of interested parties to deal with the problem of pro ses in the courts. Collaborating with all interested parties and having court backing was absolutely essential. Fortunately both librarians had the support of their chief judges, as well as court administrators and clerks, which brought other judges on board and made for smooth referrals and practical help in the form of space and furniture. They involved the local bar members to help develop appropriate and accurate forms and answer concerns about loss of business. Other important partners included the public defender, district attorneys, domestic relations offices, legal services, and public librarians.
Both librarians faced similar objections and issues. Skeptical judges had to be won over with the help of the chief judge. Attorneys who thought they would lose business found that once unrepresented litigants were educated, the court process was smoother and took less time. In fact, educated patrons sometimes hired attorneys once they saw how complicated their cases actually were. Melanie found she had to deal with some noise and child care issues in her library. Both librarians had to develop clear notices about unauthorized practice after finding that patrons occasionally asked attorneys or librarians for help filling out forms.
The speakers emphasized the importance of marketing, including developing a good web site to insure a successful project, and the necessity of keeping good statistics. They both continue to review the information that they provide to patrons and to add more forms as issues and questions come up. In the future, forms for non-English speakers still need to be developed.
Joan Bellistri moderated this SCCLL sponsored program, which was well attended. The speakers were informative, and their emphasis on collaboration, careful statistics, and marketing was valuable for all types of librarians.