Legal Advice on the Internet

The Internet, as everyone should know by now, contains all manner of information, ranging from useful and correct to dangerously incorrect. I have encountered a few individuals (not attorneys) who rely on information they find online to form legal theories, civil or criminal, in the hope that they can assist me with their cases or proceed pro se (i.e., without legal counsel) on a legal matter. While pro se parties in small claims courts or administrative offices often handle their legal affairs adequately (and successfully), they do not always recognize their own limitations.

A layperson who relies on personal research in something complex, such as defense to a criminal prosecution or a dispute over land ownership, can find himself or herself losing a case before realizing what has happened. Due process provisions, pleading requirements, summary judgment rules, and other arcane legal areas can require a formal legal education to understand and hours of research to explore in detail. For instance, an undoubtedly intelligent client of mine pointed me to court decisions he had found that, he thought, formed a strong constitutional defense to one charge he faces; unfortunately, those decisions applied only in another state and were meaningless in a Maine court.

To make matters worse, some people rely on absolutely false legal theories they discover on odd websites—claims like the federal income taxation is unconstitutional or states lack jurisdiction to enforce traffic laws within their borders—instead of relying on the advice of an attorney. They make frivolous arguments instead of focusing on the actual issues at hand, and many end up incarcerated for things like income tax evasion and operating without a license.

Finally, I would like to warn readers about seeking legal advice through a public forum like Avvo. I sometimes answer questions on Avvo, and it is fine for the public to ask general questions (“Is it possible to get a child support order modified? Is the landlord allowed to change my locks without my permission?”) of the lawyers who use it. Some users, however, offer far too many details, potentially incriminating themselves in the process. It may be anonymous, but that does not mean that a post cannot be linked to a specific person. Before posting a question, consider whether you are about to admit to something unlawful. If you are about to state, let us say, that you have violated a restraining order or broken a contract, it is probably better to keep that information to yourself.

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