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Law libraries: Hard decisions in hard times | Joan Rataic-Lang

Thursday, November 11, 2021 @ 10:25 AM | By Joan Rataic-Lang

Joan Rataic-Lang %>
Joan Rataic-Lang
The 2022 Law Society of Ontario (LSO) budget reduces annual fees and restores funding to libraries. Some hard decisions had to be made, and as far as courthouse libraries are concerned, they took a step in the right direction. The LSO has a responsibility to regulate the legal professions in the public interest. That’s no small feat when there are over 65,000 legal professionals (lawyers and paralegal licensees) in the province, most of whom are in sole practices or small firms.

How better to support those legal professionals than by assuring that a well-funded library system will continue its mandate? The LSO news release said, “The LiRN network is an integral source of legal information and law library services across Ontario.” LiRN (Library & Information Resources Network) supports courthouse “libraries by administering grants and assessing and developing appropriate service offerings.”

LiRN is developing a system that is looking to the future and increasing equity of access to library resources to users across the province. We live in an increasingly digital environment and that cannot be ignored, nor can the fact that legal professionals in similar sized Canadian jurisdictions have better services. LiRN has some hard work ahead, but the benchers’ support in approving LiRN’s budget is invaluable.

Why are libraries so important? Consider the following.

The Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers define what a “competent lawyer” means. As a matter of fact, legal research is specifically identified in that definition. The resources needed for legal research are often out of reach for many lawyers, they simply cannot afford everything they might need and in many cases cannot even afford the must-haves. This is where libraries play their most important role. They provide access to essential services. We live in a common law jurisdiction and avoiding legal research can dangerous for lawyers and disastrous for clients. This raises the question of access to justice.

Besides access to primary law, libraries have the secondary legal resources that shorten the time and effort needed to solve the problem at hand. Treatises provide expert analysis and commentary. They help find and understand primary sources of law. If a contract question came up, and I had to bet on who would find the correct law, I would put money on one of the librarians I work with over a lawyer any day. If the librarian had a copy of Fridman or Swan on Contracts, and the lawyer only had access to case law.

Treatises are only part of the equation; precedents, encyclopedias, dictionaries, articles, CLE papers can all be found in or with the help of a librarian who works in in the courthouse. The quick things that can be found easily on CanLII are not what we are asked to help with. We find and provide precedents, checklists, guides, secondary sources, indicate what the leading cases in a particular area of law are, note-up, help find the governing legislation, track legislative changes and find legislative intent. We teach licensing candidates and new calls how to effectively research.

I daresay by the questions we get in my courthouse library, lawyers rely on us too. We, the librarians, are teachers, advisers and instructors. We never give an opinion but we help those who do. The librarians provide in-depth research, collecting the information needed to answer sophisticated legal issues by those who do not have an in-house library.

I asked a few of my colleagues about our funding situation. Mary-Jo Petsche, Welland County Law Association, said:

When the library and its staff are the heartbeat of an association and provide legal information and assistance with research, you worry that your members will be underserved if the proper funding is not there. Funding for courthouse libraries prior to the pandemic was in a dire situation. There was so much uncertainty as to what services and resources we could offer our lawyers if the budgets were cut or slashed entirely. Thankfully the funding was restored at Convocation on October 25, 2021. Hopefully we are headed in the right direction and we can strengthen our library offerings and how we deliver to our lawyers.

Jen Walker, president of the Ontario Courthouse Libraries Association said:

Restoring funding to Ontario courthouse libraries and to LiRN is a smart decision, one that allows for both the provision of high-quality legal research resources and services, and for LiRN to develop as the new administrative body for our library system. The members of the Ontario Courthouse Libraries Association, all of who work in the province’s county and district law association libraries, are proud to provide excellent library services to Ontario’s lawyers and we appreciate the support for our work and library collections that this vote at Convocation represents.

Libraries even the gap, level the playing field, call it whatever you want, the fundamental concept is that how much money you make will not impact the quality of the work you provide to your clients. As I have said in my columns before, libraries play a role in competence, professional development, access to justice and mentoring. Well done benchers.

Joan Rataic-Lang is executive director and library director of the Toronto Lawyers Association.

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