Guidelines for Evaluating Government Information on the Web

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Drafted by the American Association of Law Libraries, Digital Access to Legal Information Committee, August 11, 2011

These guidelines are intended to help members of the general public assess law-related websites.  The guidelines identify some of the issues to consider when deciding whether a website provides trustworthy and up-to-date information, suitable for a particular law-related information need.

Legal research is a specialized discipline. These guidelines note some of the unique issues involved in conducting legal research but are not intended as a legal research tutorial. Those seeking a brief introduction to legal research may wish to consult the sources listed at the end of this document. 

Developers of government-sponsored legal websites may wish to consult the Committee’s Principles & Core Values Concerning Public Information on Government Web Sites for ideas on improving their own sites.

Primary Law and Secondary Sources.
Primary law is the text of the law itself. It includes federal and state statutes,  local laws (including charters and ordinances), federal and state constitutions, federal and state administrative agency regulations and decisions, and federal and state judicial opinions regarding legal matters addressed through the course of litigation. Secondary sources explain  or comment on primary law,  providing references to primary law itself. Secondary sources can be published or created by government entities or private entities. Secondary sources by private entities include scholarly journals, legal encyclopedias, annotations, blogs on legal topics, subject specific treatises, practice guides and monographs, and legal dictionaries. However, government agencies also produce secondary sources in the form of reports, guidelines, check-lists, legislative histories, regulatory histories and other publications that do not embody the law itself.

When looking at a law-related website, be careful to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.  While secondary sources can be helpful in understanding legal concepts, it is primary law that ultimately binds the courts.  

Official and Unofficial Sources 

Primary law is written by governmental entities which designate an official source for the authoritative text of that primary law. The official source may be published by the government itself or by a commercial publisher authorized by the government. Unofficial sources from commercial publishers can be useful because they are often published in a more timely manner and include additional  content.

It is important to know if you are looking at an official or unofficial version of primary law. If there is a difference between an official and unofficial version, the official version controls. The official source is often in print; however, some states are now only publishing information electronically and so the electronic version is official. Even though, the primary law of a particular jurisdiction may be published online by the government entity itself, that does not necessarily mean that it is a current and reliable source.

Both the purpose of the research and the nature of the source affect the importance of using an official source. When preparing a legal action or writing a scholarly paper, it is typically important to use the government-designated official source of law. However, in some instances the only available current compilation of primary law is the electronic copy.  Although the electronic version may not have been deemed official by the state, it may be the most current.

(For more information on official and unofficial sources on a state-by-state basis, see the Committee’s State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources)

What Law Applies Jurisdiction 

Different laws apply in different places. Each state has its own legal system and there is a federal legal system as well.  The subject matter of the legal issue affects whether federal sources, state sources, or local sources of law need to be consulted. Geographic considerations, such as where the people involved live or who owns the land where an incident occurred, also affect which law applies. For instance, New Mexico state law may not apply on an Indian reservation within the state, but Tribal laws may apply.  In addition, if there are contradictory laws on a matter, federal law can rule state law invalid, and state law can have control over local law.

To determine jurisdictional relevance, consider questions such as:

  • For primary law, where is the court, legislative body, or executive agency geographically located? What is the geographic scope of that body’s law-making power?
  • For sites interpreting or re-stating the law, is the source of the law and where it applies made clear? It can be helpful to consider where the author or organization that created the page is based because sometimes the website will only present the law of that jurisdiction.

Evaluating Websites

There are three main factors to consider in evaluating websites:  who is the author of the website, content and currency.

Authorship.
What person or organization is the source of the information?

To determine who the source is and whether it is reliable, consider questions such as:

  • Can the author/source of the material clearly be identified?
  • What is the domain name of the site? This unique identifier normally appears near the start of the URL (address) before the .com, .org, .gov, .edu, .mil designation. In the U.S., domain names that end in .us or .gov are government sites. To learn more about who registered a particular domain name, see Discover Who Owns A Website.
  • Is there an introduction or disclaimer that describes who is providing the information and why?
  • Is there an “about us” or similar kind of link?
  • Is there a “last updated” date to determine currency?
  • Does the website provide a comment form or contact information for the author or Webmaster?
  • For information written by an individual, are qualifications provided, like biographical information or a resume listing education and experience? Can this information be verified with a different source?
  • Was the site created purely to inform or for another purpose, such as influencing public opinion or selling a product or service? When evaluating a website designed to be persuasive, it is particularly important to be aware of the viewpoint being advocated and to consider carefully whether information presented is factual and complete.

Content. Legal information is best read in full-text and in context. It is important to know whether a site is providing complete content and to be able to find all relevant information available on a particular site. In addition, it is important to consider the interplay of different sources of law and access any that might be relevant to the legal information sought. To simplify, a constitution lays out basic responsibilities and rights with which other kinds of laws in that jurisdiction must follow. Legislative bodies pass statutes or ordinances that become law. The executive branch creates regulations to help enforce and administer these statutes and ordinances and issues rulings, decisions, and orders. Courts settle claims and issues based on common law and interpret laws, regulations, and constitutions and issue opinions that are law.

To determine the comprehensiveness of a site’s content, consider questions such as:

  • Are laws, court rulings, or regulations directly quoted or only paraphrased?
  • Are laws, court rulings, or regulations provided in complete or only partial text?
  • Are references provided to sources of full-text (preferably to the official source)?
  • Is there a disclaimer that the information on the site is not official?  Or does the site state the information is the official version of the primary law?
  • Does the site indicate which jurisdiction it applies to?  A site offering comments on New York divorce law will not be helpful to people seeking divorce in California.
  • Does the site provide the ability to search by document number (e.g. code section or docket number), title or parties in a case, keyword, and subject?
  • Is an index available?
  • Are references to other relevant information, such as related statutes, constitutional provisions, court opinions, or regulations, provided? (Note: this tends to be a value-added feature, not available on many free sites. The absence of these references does not necessarily mean the site is unreliable, but the user may want to seek out this additional information in other ways.)

Currency (or up-to-dateness).  As new statutes are passed, regulations put into effect and court cases decided, the law can change. It is important to consult the most up-to-date information available. It is also important to distinguish between the currency of the site and the currency of the information contained on the site—they are not necessarily the same.

To determine the currency of a site, consider questions such as:

  • What is the last update or revision date given for the site? Be aware that the date provided may be automatically updated by the page. This may be especially likely if the last update date is the current date. Check the page on more than one day to see if the last update date is always the current date.
  • Do the links provided within the site still work, or do you see many “page cannot be displayed” responses when you click on the links?

To determine the currency of the information on the site, consider questions such as:

  • Is there any language indicating the date the information goes through.  A legislative site might have language “current through the 2010 session.” A site containing administrative regulations might say “current through April 2009.”
  • How does the date the site was last updated compare to the frequency with which statutes are passed, cases decided, or regulations promulgated in that particular jurisdiction? [depending on our audience, do we need to tell them how to find this out or should we delete this?]
  • Is there a clearly defined archive section containing older materials, organized by date or legislative session?  If the archive section is a couple of years old, this may indicate the site is not being updated regularly.
  • Does a site with legislative information include pending legislation? Does it provide effective dates (dates when the provisions of an enacted statute go into effect)?  

Other Measures of Quality. Other, more general, considerations that can help a user assess the value of a website include:

  • What other sites link to this site? The advanced search options in some search engines provide the ability to search for sites that link to another site. For instance, see Google Advanced Search under “Page-Specific Tools: Find pages that link to the page.” 
  • Does the site use a clear writing style and proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation?

For additional information on evaluating websites, see

For a more detailed introduction to legal research, we recommend these websites:

Your local library may also provide books on legal research.

Disclaimer:
Many links from this site are to sites over which neither AALL nor any of its members asserts any authority or control. AALL assumes no responsibility for the accuracy or veracity of the information that a user may encounter at these sites.