Evaluating Legal Websites
This article is intended to help you evaluate legal information that's available online. Consider the following factors to help you decide if a website is reliable.
Clear and Complete Identity Information. Who sponsors the site? Can you quickly find full and accurate information on the identity of the site sponsors and contributors as well as details on how to contact them? Physical address and phone numbers can be reassuring to check. However, some organizations may not publish a physical address because they cannot handle all the potential visitors. For example, the People's Law Library has information about the sponsors at the bottom of each page.
Visible Material Revision Dates. When was the material last reviewed for legal accuracy? Legal information is continuously updated. The website should conspicuously post the last date each page of the legal content was revised. This should be different from the date that editing or technical changes were made to the page. One update for the entire site is not particularly useful. For example, the bottom of every legal content page on this website has information about the last date the material was updated for any reason.
Legal Jurisdiction Information. Does the information relate to your legal situation? Most laws about common problems (such as divorce, custody, small claims) vary from state to state. If a website displays general legal information, the site should clearly state that the legal content may not apply in your location. It should indicate the jurisdiction (federal, state or county) of the laws discussed. For example, except where noted that federal law applies, all of the legal content on this website is based on Maryland law. The articles also indicate where there are local county or city variations.
Legal Advice Disclaimer. The website should provide a conspicuous notice that the legal information on the website is not legal advice, unless it is a law firm’s website. A law firm site should clearly state the terms and conditions under which legal advice is provided. For example, this website includes a statement at the bottom of each page.
Descriptive Links to Other Websites. Each link to other websites should include a description of where the link goes, what kind of content is on the website, and its relevance to your problem.
The Source of the Law is Noted, where appropriate and available. The website should have links to relevant case law and legislation and should include information about the source of the law (the “citation”). The People's Law Library has numerous legal citations throughout the site.
Attorney and Legal Help Referrals are Listed. Where appropriate, the website should include information on how and where to obtain legal advice or additional information.
Permissions to Publish Other Material is Displayed. If the website contains material from books, magazines, or other websites (i.e., any material created by someone else), it should show that it obtained permission to publish the content. Many pages on the People's Law Library contain a source statement at the bottom of the page.
Commercial Activities. A for-profit website should tell you how it is supported. If the site charges a fee for any of its services or to access its information the terms and conditions of use should be clearly stated. A “Terms and Conditions” or “Terms of Service” document (which defines under what terms you are authorized to use the website or to purchase products or services from the website) should be obviously displayed and clearly inform you about terms of services, refund policies, and methods of dispute resolution.