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Legal Misinformation on the Web, Starting With a Supreme Court

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There's a lot of legal misinformation on the web, but I wasn't expecting it on the website of a state supreme court (not Colorado's). The enormity of legal resources and forms--the good and the bad--on the internet has been overall positive for my law practice. Documents are a commodity; critical thinking, however, including knowing where to start, is of much greater value.

You can imagine, then, my concern upon discovering reputable sources of THE LAW to be in disagreement over the wording of a state court rule. Sure, I expect disagreement over matters of legal opinion, but the text of rules and statutes are objective, not subjective, statements of the law. The words are what they are (though lawyers will argue mightily over what the words mean).

Public libraries were once the place citizens would go to check questions of law for themselves. Now, of course, the vast majority will use computers to check government websites, and who could blame them for relying on what the government publishes there. I do it myself, but a recent experience has me wondering how reasonable that reliance is.

My Colorado client wants to expand its business into another state. A set of rules issued by the supreme court in that state governs an aspect of my client's plan, so my firm checked those rules using a subscription-based, online research library. Seeing no problems, we gave our client the initial go-ahead and began arranging for a lawyer in that other state to get involved.

In a subsequent call with my client, I needed to refer to a specific portion of the rule. Instead of taking the time to log-in to our subscription service, I pulled-up the rule on the state supreme court's website. What I saw stopped me mid-sentence. The rule on the court's site clearly prohibited an aspect of my client's plan. Stunned, I asked my client to give me some time to double-check our initial conclusion.

Several phone calls later, we confirmed that the subscription service had the official and correct version of the rule, and that the state supreme court's site had inadvertently omitted an amendment, which omission they immediately corrected. The client's plan was on again.

The incident was a great reminder to me to heed a lesson I repeatedly tell my children. Don't believe everything (or much of anything) you read on the web. When answers matter, go to the definitive source, but unfortunately that may not be what you think it is, nor will it necessarily be available for free. That state supreme court website now bears a disclaimer warning readers that the official rules are actually those published in a book. Unfortunately, that book is not available on the web other than through paid services like the one my firm uses. Most readers of a law posted on a government web site would not think it necessary to verify its accuracy, but their lawyers should.