The Free Library and access to justice

Many Philadelphians are unable to get help with legal questions involving housing, health, access to benefits, family matters, and other basic needs. A new report from the Sheller Center suggests that the Free Library could play a significant role in narrowing this “justice gap,” which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.

In A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice, students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic report on innovative ways in which libraries around the country are helping patrons connect with legal information, forms, apps, court web sites, “help centers” and nonprofit organizations, and other sources of assistance. The report suggests ways in which the Free Library could provide a similar service here.

As the report notes, the Library is well suited to perform this role. It has branches across the city as well as a user-friendly website to which legal information could easily be added. Much of the information that patrons need, moreover, is now available electronically. While there’s work to be done to sort out what’s useful from what’s not, the Library would not need to buy expensive new books or subscriptions; instead, the task would be to assemble and curate existing resources, and to provide training and guidance to library staff.  Philadelphia has a strong public-interest and pro bono legal community that could partner in such an effort (and perhaps in creating a more extensive “lawyer in the library” program as well).

The report was developed by Access to Justice Clinic students Alex Burns, David Frias and Basmah Raja.