These days, when faced with a problem, most people look online for an answer. We type our question into a search engine and expect that somewhere within the first few pages returned, we will find our answer.
This approach works well for most things: factual information, news, celebrity gossip and shopping. However, it can be dangerous when looking for advice to legal problems. As in most things on the internet, much depends on the source of the advice and when it was published.
I was involved in a court case recently, where the case put forward by the other side was wrong legally. No matter how many times I pointed this out to the other side’s solicitor, she insisted that she was correct.
This wasn’t the usual situation of her championing her client’s case, or a difference of opinion on how a court might judge the issues, she had got the law completely wrong.
In fact, the way she was arguing her client's case was very similar to an argument that, in a previous reported case, a High Court judge agreed with. However, that case later went to the Court of Appeal where three appeal court judges said that the High Court judge had got it wrong and overturned his decision. They explained in great detail why the argument that the High Court judge found so persuasive was simply wrong in English law.
It was only when I did some Google searches using search terms that were the issues in our case that it dawned on me what had happened.
The decision of the High Court judge was widely reported by the online legal press and many solicitors’ firms on their websites. Hardly anyone commented on the later Court of Appeal decision. The first four pages of search results only mentioned the High Court decision and the web pages had not been updated to point out that the High Court was later found to be wrong.
I can only assume that the other side’s solicitor did her ‘legal research’ on the internet and therefore came to the wrong conclusion.
So how should the internet be used to find legal advice?
- If you’ve got a legal problem, by all means use a search engine and type in your problem.
- Look carefully at the pages returned to see how old they are and whether they’ve been updated.
- Remember that the law changes and so, even if many sites say the same thing, it might no longer be correct.
- Look at other articles and blogs by the same author to get a feel as to whether they are an expert in what they are writing about.
- If you need accurate legal advice, contact the author (if they’re a solicitor) and see if they can help with your particular problem. If so, try to get to speak with them on the phone.
- When you speak to them, try to get a feeling for whether they understand your problem and how they can help.
Business Law Solicitor