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Can The Internet Answer Your Legal Questions?

The internet is a vast storehouse of knowledge but is the internet useful to answer your legal questions. In an effort to answer this question I asked my research assistant, age 24, who recently was awarded a Liberal Arts BA degree from a prestigious college in Ohio to see whether by using the internet he could get an answer to the following legal question – “Do I pay tax on monies that I inherit from a Stateside relative?” My research assistant I would note is very computer literate and used the Microsoft network search engine. He found that the question although a very real and meaningful one was too specific to get an answer through an internet search. The closest question that he could find was – “What is inheritance tax?”. From there he was able to get information on giving gifts and making bequests which were tax free. My research assistant found about 30 websites relating to legal advice where you get more specific legal advice; narrowing down to inheritance tax he still found about 30 websites. He then surfed the internet and found that going to actual websites proved disappointing in that it does not often contain the information. It is likely to take you to a law firm or law service that will give you legal advice but that would be for fee based legal advice.

My research assistant did find a interactive website whereby you could submit a question and you could expect a response after 24 hours or so. With the question you needed to respond how much would you expect to pay for the response. This was supposedly a free legal advice service. Looking at the fine print on the website screen the service said that it would put you in touch with legal advisors for free not that the response, i.e. the legal information wanted, would be free. Apart from convenience of being able to get legal advice without leaving the comfort of your home or wherever your computer terminal is located this seems to be little improvement over the traditional consultation with a lawyer.

His internet research also lead him to various websites that sold information on different areas of law such as employment law and on which you could view for free certain information available on CD-Rom packages. These included packages providing you with monthly updates in various areas of the law but they were all subscription based. Another alternative was for access for a 24 hour period to a data base. If you were fortunate enough to get the answer to your query, it was well worthwhile as the fee was only £5.

The internet proved handy for providing information with regard to names, addresses, e-mail addresses, etc of legal specialists in different areas. Through one service you can choose the locality of the lawyer you are seeking and then get their e-mail address so that you can correspond directly with them. The service referred to those listed as lawyers with “experience and expertise”. Having spent over an hour searching the net my research assistant still did not have an answer to his question. He then decided to forget the hypothetical rich uncle that did not in fact leave him any money and go for a more ‘real world question’ – “Could he refuse to pay rent because he has not had hot water in his apartment for the last three days?”. My research assistant was using an American website which rightly cautioned that the result was dependent upon the jurisdiction that he was in. Being in London the information would not have been directly relevant to his query and he is still searching for an equivalent British website.

My research assistant’s conclusion was that you could learn about the law on line. Moreover, you could learn the answers to specific matters on line. Difficulties arise in applying the information that you could obtain on line to your own particular circumstances and questions. You might be able to find the answer to your legal query was but in many cases that you would still need a lawyer to actually carry through the implementation, be it preparation of documents, legal pleadings, etc.

When I last asked my research assistant he said that he was still planning to go to law school.