Drafted by the American Association of Law Libraries, Digital Access to Legal Information Committee, June 8, 2016
Approved by the Executive Board, July 2016, Tab 2
This guide is intended to help members of the general public evaluate legal information accessed online. The guide outlines important issues to consider when deciding whether a website provides reliable and current information that is suitable for a particular law-related information need.
Though the guide notes some of the unique issues involved in conducting legal research online, it is not intended as a legal research tutorial. Those seeking a more formal introduction to this type of specialized legal research may consult the sources listed in the “Additional Information” section at the end of the guide. For definitions of terms used in the guide, visit Wex, a free legal dictionary and encyclopedia sponsored and hosted by the Legal Information Institute, or The Law Dictionary, featuring Black’s Law Dictionary Free Online Legal Dictionary 2nd Ed.
For related information regarding the American Association of Law Libraries’ principles regarding public information on government websites, consult the Association’s Guiding Principles For Public Access To Legal Information On Government Websites.
Evaluating Online Sources
There are three main factors to consider in evaluating online sources of legal information: content coverage, currency, and reliability.
I. Content Coverage
A. Primary Law and Secondary Sources.
Primary law is the text of the law itself. It includes constitutions, charters, statutes, ordinances, administrative regulations, administrative decisions, and judicial opinions issued by federal, state, and tribal governmental entities. Secondary sources explain or comment on primary law, providing references to primary law. Secondary sources may be published or created by governmental entities or private entities. Secondary sources published by private entities include scholarly journals, legal encyclopedias, blogs on legal topics, subject specific treatises, practice guides and monographs, legal dictionaries, and annotations (comments, summaries, or reference notes following the text of the law). Governmental entities 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 are helpful in understanding legal concepts, it is primary law that binds the courts.
B. Official and Unofficial Sources.
Primary law is promulgated by governmental entities which designate an official source as 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 may be made available by governmental entities or published by commercial publishers. These unofficial sources can be useful because they often are published in a timelier manner and, in the case of unofficial commercial publications, often include additional content such as annotations and explanatory notes.
It is important to know if you are looking at an official or unofficial version of primary law. Researchers may find both official and unofficial sources of legal information useful, depending on the nature of the research and the reason for citing a particular primary authority. For example, when preparing a legal action or writing a scholarly paper, it is necessary to use the government-designated official source of law. In other instances, however, the unofficial electronic version may be both sufficient for the research purpose and the most current source available.
If there is a difference between an official and unofficial version, the official version controls. In many cases, a governmental entity will provide an unofficial online version for informational purposes and the site will include a note stating the content should not be relied upon as the official source of the law. In other cases, the governmental entity may only publish certain primary material electronically and designate the electronic version as the official version. Often, however, the official status may be difficult to determine. If you have questions about whether material is official or unofficial, you may need to contact the governmental entity responsible for its publication.
For information on official and unofficial sources on a state-by-state basis, see the American Association of Law Libraries State Online Legal Information site, which provides information about the official status of online session laws, statutes, administrative registers, administrative codes, and appellate court opinions in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Different laws apply in different places. Each state and tribal government has its own legal system, and there is a federal legal system as well. The subject matter of the legal issue affects whether federal, tribal, state, 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, tribal law, rather than New Mexico state law, may apply to a dispute arising on an Indian reservation within the state. In addition, if there are contradictory laws on a matter, federal law may preempt state law, and state law may 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.
For more information on jurisdiction, see the definition provided by the Legal Information Institute.
D. Context of Sources.
Legal information is best read in full text and in context. It is important to know whether a site is providing the complete content of a given source. In addition, one must consider the interplay of different sources of law and access all sources that are relevant to the legal issue being researched. Briefly, the basic hierarchy of legal authority begins with the jurisdiction’s constitution – the origin of basic governmental responsibilities and individual rights. 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. Courts issue opinions that have the binding effect of law.
When evaluating a site’s content coverage, consider the following:
- Are laws, court rulings, or regulations published in full text as promulgated by the governmental entity, or are they only excerpted or paraphrased?
- Are references provided to sources of full text (preferably to the official source) so that you can verify the accuracy of the information?
- 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.
- 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 and is not available on many free websites. 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.
- Does the site provide helpful finding tools, such as indexing, and the ability to search by document number (e.g., code section, docket number), title or parties in a case, keyword, and subject?
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 also is 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 the following:
- 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 the following:
- Is there any language indicating the date range for the information included on the site?
- A legislative site might have language such as “current through the 2015 session.” A site containing administrative regulations might say “current through April 2016.”
- Does a site with legislative information provide effective dates (dates when the provisions of an enacted statute go into effect)? Does it include pending legislation?
- Is there a “last updated” date to determine currency?
- 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?
- 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.
An important step in evaluating the reliability of online sources of legal information is to determine the source of the information, the qualifications and expertise of the author, and the purpose for which the site is intended.
To determine the reliability of a site and the information provided there, consider the following:
- Is the author/source of the material clearly identified? Is the source hosted by a governmental entity or by a private entity that is licensed or contracted by the government?
- Is an explanation regarding chain of custody and the transference of information between the law-making body and the publisher provided?
- Is the text of the content authenticated? Does the content bear a certificate or mark indicating that the governmental entity has verified that the text is complete and unaltered when compared to the version approved or published by the content originator? For a more complete definition of authentication, see the AALL Definitions of Inventory Categories that are evaluated on American Association of Law Libraries State Online Legal Information site.
- For information written by an individual, are qualifications provided, such as 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.
- Does the site use a clear writing style and proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation?
- What information about users is collected, and why?
For additional information on evaluating websites, see:
- Southern Illinois University Law Library, Evaluating Websites and Other Information Resources
- American Association of Law Libraries, Private Law Librarians Special Interest Section, The Internet as a Legal Research Tool
- University of Akron Law Library, Evaluating Websites and Blogs
For a more detailed introduction to legal research, see:
- American Association of Law Libraries, Legal Information Services to the Public Special Interest Section, How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers
- Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-law Librarians (5th ed. 2011)
- Your local library may also provide books on legal research.
For helpful links to online sources, see:
- American Association of Law Libraries, Legal Information Services to the Public Special Interest Section, Public Library Toolkit (which includes state-specific public library toolkits providing information on each state’s legal resources, links to sources available online, and links to state-specific research guides)
- Law Library of Congress Public Services Division, Guide to Law Online
- National Archives, Government Documents in the Archives Library Information Center
- Georgetown Law Library, Free and Low Cost Legal Research Guide
- Duke Law Library, Legal Research on the Web
For guidance on citing to government publications, see:
- University of North Texas University Libraries, Tutorial: Citing Government Publications (General Guidelines)
Many links included in the Guidelines are to sites over which neither the American Association of Law Libraries (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.