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Online project provides legal information to Coloradans

It seems like such a basic thing: Somewhere in this age of Internet, there should be a one-stop, easy-to-use collection of reliable free legal information.

But for thousands of Coloradans, even a simple question can mean paying a professional for reliable advice or going it alone and making a mistake.

In 2005, library educators in DU’s Morgridge College of Education and the Westminster Law Library began discussing a grant application to create a law librarianship program in the Morgridge’s Library and Information Science program.

Submitted in 2007, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant would go on to create the University of Denver Law Librarian Fellowship program and seed the Colorado Law Project, which made its public debut earlier this year.

“It’s a tool we wanted to be for the general public, for anyone who needed this information but didn’t know where to turn,” says Stacey Bowers, outreach and instructional services coordinator for the Westminster Law Library. “But beyond that, we wanted to partner with public libraries. So many times it’s the public librarians who are really on the front lines when people go looking for something that helps them understand the law or even understand where to turn next.”

What users will find at the site is a growing list of how-to information.

Under the heading “How Do I,” for example, users find information on changing their name, reporting abuse or animal abuse, dealing with professional misconduct or even finding a lawyer. As a living, growing site, there are plans to add more topics including filing a disability claim, creating a will or trust and filing for adoption or divorce.

And there is a page that provides reliable links to the array of law forms used by state and local court systems.

“It’s all carefully geared toward Colorado law,” Bowers says. “We really tried to write everything for non-lawyers.”

Supported by the $1 million IMLS grant and other funding — including a DU Public Good grant — the Library and Information Science program worked with colleagues in the law library and the law school to recruit 10 law library fellows. These fellows, who are graduating with their master’s degrees in library and information science in June 2011, have worked closely with the law library on the site.

The IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The IMLS grant was one of 31 given nationwide as part of a $20 million Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program.

Bowers says the DU team worked with the Colorado Supreme Court Library and surveyed private attorneys to learn what was available and what was needed. Then they went directly to librarians at the Denver Public Library and Arapahoe Library District to hear what challenges they face and what kind of legal resources public library patrons are seeking.

These librarians, she says, also reported they were cautious about how much information they provided because of rules about providing legal advice. Bowers says the site carries a disclaimer advising users that the project does not provide legal advice and that information is provided as a service, not as a substitute for legal counsel.

Moving forward, Bowers says the team hopes it will reach a broad audience, from those who work with seniors or economically disadvantaged to even lawyers working in rural areas who might not have ready access to a major law library. 

“Pro bono [free] legal aid is often difficult to qualify for,” Bowers says. “Our hope is that we’ve created a gateway to legal information that might have been hard for individuals to find or understand. And we are going to keep adding to it, creating a resource that really benefits the people of Colorado.”

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