First, as a lawyer I have to say this: no attorney-client relationship is created between me and you by me contributing this to Gizmo's website. My advice is general and may not apply to you; you should always consult your own attorney about your matter. The information below was accurate when I wrote it, but may have changed since then. I am licensed to practice law only in Washington State and publishing this essay on the Internet does not constitute the practice of law anywhere.
Some readers are posting personal information about their legal matters as comments below and asking the TechSupportAlert community for advice. I think this is a bad idea. Whatever you post will be admissible as evidence in court and could hurt you, and you should be careful about getting legal advice from anybody except a lawyer in your jurisdiction who is an expert about cases like yours. I am not responsible for other people's posts and do not edit what they write or delete their errors; the rule of "caveat emptor" definitely apppies here, as it does all over the Internet.
Lawyers call their organizations "bars;" you should contact your local bar associations to find a lawyer who will talk to you for no charge. Most lawyers will give you at least some time free; you should be careful not to waste it!
For readers in King or Snohomish Counties, State of Washington: I have written a new page for my website, which lists the contact information for all the organizations I know of in these counties where you can meet with a lawyer for no cost ("pro bono"); this page should be up before the middle of May 2011.
Avvo.com rates lawyers; we all would like to get high ratings, and two of the ways to raise your rating are to post essays you've written and to answer questions people post, so that can be a good website where you can post legal questions. Again, be careful not to post anything you wouldn't mind having read back to you in court. Many of the answers I've read were incomplete and some were just plain wrong, even though posted by licensed attorneys, so, as always, be a sophisticated consumer of anything you read on the Internet.
The Best General Resources
The best single website for legal site links in the United States is www.findlaw.com. I can't comment about sites in other countries because I don't know much about them, but I'd be glad for tips about this or any other topic that would improve this essay.
The IRS has always been a leader in making information and forms available freely and conveniently on the web, at www.irs.gov – you can fill in forms online and then download them as PDF files.
My favorite sources to find federal statutory law are www.gpoaccess.gov/uscode/index.html and uscode.house.gov
For the latest Supreme Court briefs and opinions, see www.supremecourtus.gov.
There are some good websites about the law in countries other than the USA in the Comments below, along with other suggested websites.
Your local courthouse probably has a law library and law librarians who will help you find the answers to your questions.
And never forget Internet search engines!
Finding the law in another jurisdiction (USA state or another country)
Are you in the USA and need legal information about another one of our 50 states, the District of Columbia, territories, etc.? Just follow the advice in this essay. Another country? Try applying my general advice, especially drilling deep down while using your favorite Internet search engine.
Are you in the USA and need to do legal research about another country? Be sure to contact the American embassy in the country you're interested in; they are a a great source of information, especially related to import/export, travel, marriage/divorce, adoption, people who've been arrested in the other country, and other situations that often come up for consular officials. They can also get documents for you, such as a birth certificate, and will notarize them on request. Our embassy and consulate people are there to help you and are glad to do so, usually for no charge. I've never had any trouble doing this by e-mail.
Here is an awesome website the USA State Department maintains, which has abundant information about other countries: http://m.state.gov/mc36882.htm
Here are some tips that are specific to finding the law in another country.
Suppose you live in a country other than the United States and want to find out about your country's law. Applying the USA-specific advice in this essay is a good way to start your research, especially asking a librarian or at the courthouse, searching the Internet, and paying a lawyer for what he or she knows.
Don't forget the Wikipedia, which has some excellent articles about countries' legal systems.
But always remember to be a sophisticated consumer of information that you find on the Internet. Anybody can post anything on the Internet, no matter how wrong (or just plain crazy) it is -- that includes the comments from non-lawyers appended below. Never believe anything just because somebody uploaded it to the Internet.
Now suppose you live in country A and want to find out about the law in country B (which is not the United States).
Bbe sure to check the resources in your country about country B, such as your library, your country's diplomatic agency, lawyers, etc. for information about country B.
You should contact country B's embassy/consulate/mission/etc. (if they have one in country A), especially if you have questions about import, export, tourism, immigration, divorce, adoption, and criminal law (such as: is it OK if I bring my machine gun with me when I visit your country?).
If there is no country B diplomatic representation in your country, contact the Swiss embassy (if there is one) and ask if they have a country B special interests section, and if they don't, if they can give you any advice about what to do next.
Country B probably has government websites that can help you (or can lead you to websites or people who can), and country B probably also has lawyers and law schools who maintain websites. I get e-mails almost every day from people in other states and nations asking questions about the law in Washington State; I try to help and I'm sure I'm not the only lawyer in the world who is willing to give some free time to people.
Always remember this when you're asking a lawyer for free information and advice: as Abraham Lincoln said, a lawyer's time and advice are his stock in trade (meaning what he or she sells in order to earn a living); be reasonable about how much free work you're asking for. When I get an e-mail like, "how can I win custody for my kid," I just refer the sender to my website, but a carefully targeted question, such as how can I contact Child Support Enforcement, will get a specific answer.
Unless you are 'way out in the boonies, there is probably a lawyer near you who is an expert on country B law or can refer you to somebody who is, and don't forget your local librarians, who are often experts on Internet legal research, especially the ones at the law schools. Be sure to ask about the Martindale-Hubbell digests, which are good summaries of law in the 50 USA states and most other nations, and which are available to read in most law libraries.
Your local law school almost certainly publishes a law review, edited by their top students; you can hire these students to do legal research for you at hourly rates that are much less than a lawyer's, and they can do good work for you.
Also look at the faculty at the law school. Earlier this year, another lawyer asked me about Islamic divorce; I was able to refer him to a Professor at the University of Washington Law School who teaches a course on that subject.
When you're in litigation (suing or being sued), it's important to remember five things.
(1.) Usually facts are more important than the law, and we all know how useful the web can be in finding information. Don't forget the Wayback Machine, which archives snapshots of the web over time: www.archive.org/index.php. The Wayback Machine is very helpful when you want to find web pages defendants took down when they realized the pages could hurt them in court . . and the fact that the defendants tried to hide those web pages makes the defendants look guilty.
(2.) Judges are more interested in doing the right thing than they are in following the law, so don't get so involved trying to prove you should win according to the law that you forget to argue why you should win because that's what right.
(3.) All law is local, and the law changes all the time. You need to find the latest law that applies to your case, and the web is a great leveler for this – you can do what the lawyers in your jurisdiction do; research the law on the web.
(4.) Finding the law is not easy. Legislatures enact statutes, but in the end it's the appellate judges who decide what the law is. Never just read your state's Code and think you've found the law; use the code sections you think apply to your case as search queries to find "cases" – published decisions of your state's appellate courts interpreting the code. And even in code states, most of "the law" is created by the appellate courts and can't be found anywhere in the Code. Remember that later decisions trump earlier decisions and decisions of your state's Supreme Court trump decisions from the lower courts. If your state's lower appellate courts are organized by geographical areas and opinions differ, be sure you are citing a decision from the court in your area.
Reading the latest published decisions in your jurisdiction is the best way to find the law, but don't be surprised if the decisions are not logically consistent. Cite the cases you like, but be sure to also discuss the cases you don't like and argue why they should not apply to your case.
Warning: in almost all jurisdictions, you will also find "unpublished decisions" from the lower appellate courts; these can be good sources for concise statements of law and citations to the best published cases on point, but unpublished decisions cannot be cited as authority in support of statements about what the law is for your case – you must use the published decisions.
Here’s a cheap way to do legal research: contact the law review at your local law school and hire one of those brainy law students to do it for you; they have free access to Lexis and Westlaw, two online legal research services that are not free for you.
(5.) There's no substitute for a good lawyer. Do-it-yourself litigation is a high-risk strategy; the only good thing about it is trial judges bend over backwards to be fair to pro se's (non-lawyer litigants who represent themselves).
Self Help Resources
If you are really too poor (as opposed to too cheap) to hire a lawyer, call your local County Bar Association for a referral to a free lawyer. If you can afford to spend a few hundred dollars to win your case, hire a lawyer to advise you while you do the work. Most lawyers in private practice will meet once with potential clients for little or no charge, but you should be realistic about how much help you can get if you don't sign up as a paying client.
In most jurisdictions, poor people can get an order allowing them to litigate in forma pauperis (IFP). The usual model form IFP order simply waives fees, but you can probably get a judicial officer's signature on the order after you've added language ordering your County Sheriff to serve process for you in your county (and file proofs of service) at no charge, and ordering the Court Clerk to give you two certified copies of every document in the court's file for your case at no charge.
Confused about where to go in the courthouse? You will probably find a court called Ex Parte. Take your proposed orders there, and they will either sign them or tell you which court you should go to. Otherwise go to the Clerk's office; they will tell you where to take your papers. Many courthouses also have people who will help you for no charge, such as the Family Law Facilitators my state, Washington.
Do-it-yourself lawyering works best when you're doing something that only requires filling in a form and sending it to the right address; in many situations, you can do this on the web. But there are still pitfalls for the unwary. For example: in Washington, you can start a business on the State's website (paying fees by credit card), but if your business is in Seattle, you still need to get a business license from the city. Be careful! And be sure to go to the source and get the latest form.
In your state, there should be at least seven good sources of legal information and services on the web:
(1.) Attorneys in your state are licensed by the (your State's name) State Bar Association. You shouldn't have any trouble finding the Bar's website by using a search engine. The Bar's website will have a lot of useful information, including links to other good legal websites in your jurisdiction and information about attorneys.
(2.) Attorneys also belong to voluntary bar associations, organized by locality (typically by county, such as the King County Bar Association for the Seattle area) or by practice area (such as the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association). There are also national bar associations, such as the American Bar Association or the American Trial Lawyers Association. I think by now all these bars have websites, which can be especially useful when you're looking for a lawyer.
(3.) The federal government, the states, and local governments also have their websites, organized by branch of government: legislatures, executive branches, and the judicial branch, such as your state's court system and also your local courts (there will probably be three levels of courts: county courts of general jurisdiction, county courts of limited jurisdiction, and municipal courts) -- and don't forget the fourth branch of government: administrative agencies, that make rules, issue licenses, decide cases with administrative law judges, etc; the agencies have websites, too. There are also specialty government legal websites, such as PACER (bankruptcy cases, pacer.psc.uscourts.gov – no "www") and the Immigration and Naturalization Service's website, www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis, which includes excellent, detailed information in plain English about visas.
Here in Washington, almost everybody in our state government is on the web; for example, when P sues D in the King County Superior Court, you can read the court's case file on the web (with a few exceptions) and download PDF copies of almost all file documents for a small per-page charge. Many documents recorded in King County(such as sales of land) are available on the web for free download. In Washington, you can find a corporation's registered agent (for service of process), adult criminal histories, the Seattle Municipal Code, and a wide variety of other legal information on the web, all for free and usually easily searchable.
You can also find the e-mail address of the people in government who are in charge of specific things, and often an e-mail sent to the right person gets faster and better results than a lawsuit. If a government agency is related to something you're interested in, that agency almost certainly has a website that will be useful.
My state's court system's website has a great collection of forms to download – but remember: they only apply here in Washington. Washington's Superior Courts also allow document filing by uploading PDF files (with a few exceptions), and many judges in King County will hear motions made by e-mail. Your state's courts probably have a lot of these features on their websites, too, and it never hurts to ask your judge's bailiff what you can send to the judge by e-mail (or PDF attachment) sent to the bailiff – remember to always CC all the other attorneys of record in your case – and most lawyers these days are OK with serving documents on each other as PDF attachments to e-mails.
(4.) Other people and organizations have useful law-related websites, too, especially the law schools; be sure to check the websites for all your state's law schools. Here in Washington, an association of local governments created the first website where people could read, for free, the published decisions of our state's Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal, which is where you find Washington law, http://www.legalwa.com/.
Many lawyers have created excellent websites, full of good information including legal forms – this public service not only attracts clients by demonstrating expertise, it's also the way to get your website ranked high by the search engines without paying them to move you up. You find these websites by using a search query such as "divorce and 'King County'" or "bankruptcy and Seattle." Many attorney yellow pages ads include their website addresses.
Associations of all sorts often have useful legal information on the websites, sometimes available to non-members, and sometimes you can hack in without being a member by adding "/index.html" to the website's name (the Apache default). For example, your state's realtors association probably has all the many forms you need to buy or sell a house available for free download on their website, although you may have to hack past the log-in page.
(5.) There are many helpful people and organizations who have created websites especially for non-lawyers who are trying to do their own legal work, and many of these websites are very useful, with forms, information, advice, and/or links to other websites. For example, here in Washington, the Northwest Justice Project has an excellent website that covers many areas of civil litigation. But you need to be a sophisticated consumer; many of these non-lawyer websites are full of obsolete (or just plain wrong) “information" and bad advice; as is always true on the web, be careful! If there's a lot of partisan ranting and raving, you should be skeptical about their "information" and advice, and if it sounds crazy, it probably is.
(6.) Especially in litigation, there are a lot of legal service companies that have websites: legal messengers, process servers, court reporters, attorneys service organizations that sell forms and do things (such as receive your court filings by fax and then file them for you), etc. These are the services attorneys use, and you can use them, too. Many of these websites also have useful information and forms available for free download. The forms attorneys purchase from their service companies probably will be better than the ones you can buy in general business supply stores, and usually also will be cheaper.
There are also some websites that collect legal forms harvested from the web; I know this because a lot of them include the Affidavit of Prejudice (which is specific to Washington State) which they got from my website.
The modern trend is for the courts to draft mandatory forms and make them available for free download from their websites; for example: http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/ which includes all the forms you need to file a lawsuit in small claims court, collect money owed by garnishment, get divorced, modify child support, change your name, file an appeal, etc, etc. Forms are usually supplied in *.doc or similar format, for easy word-processing.
It's more important now than ever that you find out and follow the rules for margins on your forms, because the trend is to scan legal pleadings and save them as PDF files, not paper documents, and anything you write outside the margins of your pleadings may not make it into the official record.
When I started practicing law, it was all about ink-on-paper pleadings; legal messengers would race to deliver documents before court deadlines, but now most people are preparing their pleadings as PDF files. In King County (the Seattle area), lawyers are required to submit most documents to the Superior Court by uploading PDF files, and by informal agreement, we accept service of process from each other as PDF files attached to e-mails.
It's important to remember that if your paperwork pertains to a hearing or a trial, it's not enough just to file it with the Clerk of the Court and serve it on all other parties; you must also deliver a copy to the judicial officer who will decide your case. In the King County Superior Court, you can do this for a small charge via the court's website -- so you never have to actually print anything out or use a legal messenger; you can practice law any place you can get on the Internet -- and this is the trend for courts all across America.
(7.) More and more attorneys are practicing law on the web. I've seen lawyers' websites where you can ask a question and get it answered by e-mail for a small fee, or have forms prepared and sent to you as e-mail attachments. Some attorneys have websites to help people who don't want to hire a full-service lawyer but do want to pay for help, anything from drafting documents to arranging face-to-face consultations or limited representation in court. I'll bet there are lawyers in your jurisdiction who are doing this in a wide variety of practice areas. Finding them might require some time spent using your favorite search engine, because the more traditional law firms have paid to be listed high – draft your search query carefully and/or be prepared to search through many pages of results.
(1.) "Objection, hearsay!"
We've all heard that in movies and on TV, but what does it mean?
"Hearsay" is a statement made outside the courtroom that a party wants to introduce as evidence so as to prove the truth of what was said. This includes print-outs from web pages.
Why is hearsay a problem? The speaker wasn't under oath and on the record, and the other parties can't cross-examine.
But hearsay is often great evidence -- very persuasive -- if you can get it admitted.
How can you get hearsay into evidence?
I can't write a treatise on hearsay or other evidence rules here. Prof. Edward J. Imwinkelried's "Evidentiary Foundations" is a fun read, which can be comprehended by non-laywers, with a lot of good examples of how you get your evidence admitted over objection. (My favorite part is when he illustrates how to qualify an expert witness: a little boy who collects frogs and knows what kind of frogs are found in his neighborhood.) You can probably order this book from your local library via inter-library loan, and it might be available for anybody to read at your local law school. This book is expensive, so read it in a library, and resist the temptation to buy a cheap out-of-date edition.
A legal publisher, now known as Thomson West, publishes useful treatises for attorneys, which you can probably understand. Be sure to look at the back of these books, for paperback supplements known as pocket parts, where you'll find updates since the book was published. Your state's evidence treatise is probably easily available at your local library, and should certainly be available in the library at your courthouse.
To get back to hearsay -- your state's rules of evidence probably include a few dozen hearsay exceptions; try to find one that will allow you to introduce your hearsay evidence as an exception. The most important exception is an admission against interest by a party opponent.
Here is another example of a hearsay exception: how much was your old car worth before the Defendant totaled it?
You can find out at Kelly Blue Book online: www.kbb.com. Print out the result and offer it as evidence.
"Objection!" says the lawyer the Defendant's insurance company hired, "hearsay!"
But you say, "exception 803(17), Your Honor; it's a market report." (or whatever the exception number this is in your state)
Isn't it fun playing lawyer in a real courtroom?
But the fun can stop real fast if the other side objects to an exhibit you need to win your case and you don't know how to answer; this is one reason why I recommend consulting a real lawyer, who can help you identify the evidence you need to win and explain how to get it admitted at trial. Warning: there are many different legal specialities, and few lawyers are genuinely competent outside their own speciality. Fewer than 10% of attorneys do almost all the trials, so be sure you're talking to somebody who regularly tries cases.
Here's one tip for a situation that comes up a lot:
Somebody sends you an e-mail. You print it out and offer it as evidence.
If you don't have anything better, try: "Not offered for its truth, Your Honor, but to show that the words were said."
A recent poll of judges in Washington State revealed a sharp disagreement about what they think is necessary to get a printed-out e-mail into evidence; a small majority said just print it out and offer it, but a significant minority wanted something more by way of authentication, although they weren't sure what would be enough. I recommend, as a minimum, revealing the full TCP/IP routing codes that are part of an e-mail and printing them out, if only to make the judge happy.
Your state probably has something like a Request for Admission as part of its rules of civil procedure; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Request_for_admissions When you serve a request for admission on the other side, if they admit your exhibit is admissible, they can't object to admission at trial, and if they deny, and you later get the exhibit admitted anyway, the other side has to pay your costs of proving admissibility.
Text messages are the new cutting edge issue in evidence law and procedure. Until the law becomes settled, I recommend doing all of the following if you want to offer a text message as an exhibit -- print it out, take a picture of it displayed on your cell phone, and preserve the text message on your phone and bring the phone with you to court. It's really important to put the person who received the text message on the witness stand, to testify about how he or she got the text message. You may also be able to subpoena the text message from the sender's phone, the sender's phone company, and/or your phone company, and of course serve a Request for Admission first.
(2.) electronic evidence generally
Evidence retrieved from computers or the Internet (such as printed-out e-mails) is increasingly important in court, but there are usually many hurdles you have to jump over to get it admitted. A recent opinion written by a federal judge analyzing these evidentiary issues is attracting a lot of attention and is a good place to start your legal research, but if you find it difficult to read, try the summaries written for lay readers that many lawyers are posting on the Internet; just use the case name as your search query.
The full cite is: Lorraine v. Markel American Insurance Co., 241 F.R.D. 534 (D. Md., 2007). There's a good summary on the Wikipedia, and you can download the 101-page decision from the court by clicking on reference 1, at the end of the Wikipedia article.
(3.) This tip is for attorneys and others concerned about privacy.
Two free applets available at the Microsoft Download Center, http://www.microsoft.com
1. Office 2003 Add-in: Word Redaction v1.2
-- adds a redaction toolbar that is very useful for attorneys and others concerned about keeping data private (sometimes required by court rules)
As court files become more available on the Internet, courts are requiring the redaction of more private information from documents filed; this free redacter makes it easy to redact. Notice that the old-fashioned way to redact -- use a black Marksalot to cover text -- often doesn't work; you can still read what's been "covered." I've heard that some federal courts required the use of this free tool from Microsoft back when MS Office 2003 was state of the art.
Today you have a lot of choices if you want to redact information, including Corel WordPerfect (still the best wordprocessor for attorneys) and Adobe Acrobat (versions 8 and up).
Acrobat as stand-alone software is anything but free, but it comes free with Fujitsu's ScanSnap S 1500 sheet-fed scanner, which has become standard equipment in America's law offices. I'm using my ScanSnap to create an (almost) paperless office, converting ink-on-paper documents to searchable PDF files, and I love it.
You can buy OEM versions of the Corel WordPerfect Office Suite and be sure to try the WordPerfect Pleading Expert, which makes it easy to create legal pleadings.
2. Office 2003/XP Add-in: Remove Hidden Data
-- adds a convenient button to remove metadata, such as changes that were saved so they could be restored by "undo."
Microsoft Office 2010 includes a Document Inspector to remove metadata.
Here's a good web page about how to remove metadata from documents created by Open Office: bumgarnerlaw.com/opensource/index.php
Lawyers are getting really sophisticated about looking for metadata when somebody sends them a file, and it can be really interesting to read the earlier versions of documents and comments added by the other side.
And here's an important consideration, if you want to make it harder for the other side to introduce into evidence computer files obtained by discovery. One of the ways you can authenticate a file, so you can enter it into evidence, is by analysis of metadata, which typically includes information about who created the file and when. Routinely removing metadata makes it harder for the other side to use your files against you as evidence in court.
(4.) discovery and requests for admission
Discovery is the process by which you get information from party opponents, either by requesting it in writing or by examining witnesses under oath prior to trial. You don't have to be a lawyer to conduct discovery, and it's the way lawyers collect a lot of the evidence they use at trial. Be sure to use requests for admission; if the other party admits a statement is true, you can offer that admission as evidence at trial and the other party can't deny it -- and if the other party won't admit the truth of a statement that is a necessary part of your case, and you go on to prove it at trial, the judge should order the other party to reimburse you for your costs of proving the fact. But to be useful, requests for admission have to be carefully written; here's another area where consulting a trial specialist can be money well spent.
On the lighter side
Here's a funny story to reward you for reading all the way to the end.
Recently my state's largest newspaper (the Seattle Times) hired a high-powered downtown Seattle law firm to conduct a holy war on sealed files (court files that can't be read by anybody except parties and their attorneys).
The Times moved to unseal about four dozen case files. I was one of only two attorneys to beat the Times and keep my case's file sealed. I distracted the attorney for the Times by saying service of their motion to unseal on me was bad service because I couldn't reach my client; she had moved without telling me where. The other lawyer promptly located somebody with her name on the web and sent me a web page with "her" work address and phone number.
Instead of responding directly, I Googled the lawyer's name, found a gay porn star with the same name, e-mailed the lawyer a web page from a fan site where somebody was gushing about the size of "his" penis, and asked him: is that you? Are you moonlighting as a porn star?
The web can help you litigate in all sorts of ways!
Have fun, and as my mom always said: "play nice . . . but win!"
Attorney at Law