Free legal advice is hard to come by as legal help is expensive. Much of the cost is related to the time attorneys spend conducting legal research. Before someone hires a lawyer, they should perform a legal research on their own. This can result in significant savings on legal bills. There are a number of free legal resources on the Internet that can be used for this purpose. This article describes a method anyone can use to research any legal issue using free resources on the Internet.
Start by Researching Broad Categories of Law in General
The purpose of legal research is to find the very specific laws that apply to a given legal issue. Unless the researcher has been trained to perform legal research or experience with this particular legal issue, the research process should start by considering the law in general. This means the researcher must cast his nets wide. Starting with a broad category of law is advisable.
This part of the legal research process is not aimed at discovering the answer to specific legal questions. Rather, this part of the legal research process is aimed at gaining an understanding of what issues and sub-issues should be considered. This will often help change the way the legal issue is worded and lead the researcher down an entirely different path. Unfortunately, researchers often succumb to the temptation to skip this step and, as a result, they often miss these valuable alternative research paths.
Information about general categories of law can be found throughout the Internet. Legal article websites and specialized law firm blogs can provide a good starting point. Search engines can help researchers find these Internet resources. Information linked to these resources should also be explored. The researcher should read these law articles by making a mental note of the types of issues and facts that are being addressed. The researcher should also make note of any law that is mentioned in the legal articles, such as case names, statute numbers, or citations for administrative rulings.
Continue Researching the Actual Law
With a broad understanding of the issues and facts, the researcher can now focus on finding the specific law applicable to his legal issue. There are a number of different types of laws in the U.S.
With federal law, the sources of law include: the Constitution, federal statutes, court opinions from federal courts, and rulings from federal agencies (with international issues, treaties may also come into play). These sources of law are described in their order of authority. For example, the Constitution trumps all other sources of law and administrative rulings are trumped by all other sources of law. Notably, court opinions may either create law (this is called common or judicial law) or define ambiguities in the Constitution or statutes (i.e., fill in the law). Each state in the U.S. has developed these same sources of law for issues particular to their state. City and local governments have also established many of these sources of law for issues specific to their city or locality.
This overview provides a way of searching for legal authority. The legal researcher must initially decide whether to search for federal, state, or local law. Then the researcher must try to find and comprehend the law, focusing on the law that has the highest authority. Very few legal questions will involve references to the Constitution. Most legal questions will involve one or more statutes and one or more court or administrative rulings supplementing or interpreting the statute.
Researchers may be able to work backwards by finding the court or administrative rulings and then finding the statutes cited in the rulings. Nonetheless, the researcher should not forget that the statute is probably going to be the most authoritative source of law. The researcher should also know that lower court and administrative rulings may not be a valid statement of the law. Judges and agencies make mistakes and they often put those mistakes in writing. If a court or administrative ruling is contrary to the statute or some policy argument, the researcher may need to argue that the ruling should be overturned or differentiate the facts from the facts involved in the legal question being researched.
The researcher should be able to find most of these sources of law on the Internet. The U.S. House of Representatives has a copy of the U.S. Statutes on its website. Many of the federal courts publish their court opinions on their websites. Most federal agencies publish their administrative rulings on their websites. Most state legislatures, courts, and agencies also have the same free legal advice resources on their websites. There are a number of third party websites that compile these laws and allow users to search the law for free.
Conclude the Research by Applying the Law to the Facts at Hand
With an overview of the law and issues involved and a review of the law itself, the legal researcher should be at the point of reaching a conclusion. This involves applying the law to the case at hand. It is often necessary to write this part down, as what seems solid will often become distorted with a closer look. Let’s work through a real life example.
I want to know what I can do about a speeding ticket “someone” received while driving through an area designated as a school zone. This “someone” was driving in Lubbock, Texas. While the “someone” does not normally speed through these areas, the road was a four lane U.S. Highway and the driver was merely going with the flow of traffic. The driver did not see a sign on the road at the time. The driver has since driven back through the area and noticed that the speed limit sign is quite a ways off in the distance. The driver would not have seen the sign because he entered onto the highway and was pulled over by the police after the location where the speed limit sign was located.
It appears I need to research city and possibly state law. I was able to find several websites that discuss what to do about traffic tickets. Most of these articles discussed various defenses and strategies. One of these articles discussed the specific school zone sign requirements for Minnesota. I wonder if the City of Lubbock or State of Texas has such a rule.
In looking at the traffic citation, I notice the police officer left the space blank where it provides me with the citation to the municipal ordinance I violated. I was able to find the local municipal code for the City of Lubbock online. The municipal code has a great index that helped me find the applicable section of the municipal code. I noticed the specific code section provides a list of all of the authorized school zones inside of the City of Lubbock. The location involved in the speeding citation, which is written on the traffic citation, is not listed in the code. It was not an authorized school zone.
The municipal code cites me to the state statute for determining what an authorized school zone is. I was able to find these statutes online too. These statutes explain that a local school zone cannot slow traffic on a U.S. highway. I was cited for driving on a U.S. highway.
The end result was that the City of Lubbock had decided to put up a school zone sign to slow down traffic on this street. The city agency responsible for putting up the sign would have (or should have) known this was not an authorized location for a school zone. The school zone sign went up anyway. Using the sign as justification, the police started issuing tickets to motorists who drive through the unauthorized school zone.
I assume most of the persons cited for this traffic violation merely paid the fine. The “someone” in my example had his traffic ticked dismissed by the local municipal court. Had the other persons cited for this traffic violations used the free legal research tools available on the Internet they too could have had their traffic citations dismissed.