Beginning any legal process seems like a daunting and expensive battle for most citizens. In many cases it can be, but with the help of online resources, navigating legal waters is a much more efficient and easy process.
Many Americans are taking the time to develop a basic understanding of legal terms in order to understand their taxes, contracts and rights as consumers and citizens. There are many resources out there for any citizen to get a basic legal education through websites, blog, online encyclopedias and more. Written in clear English, these tools are the best way to become an informed citizen without having to contact a lawyer.
The Importance of Contracts
Contracts and agreements are a basic part of life in the US. We use them everyday to rent an apartment, buy a house, begin a job and hire help. Resources such as the Community Toolbox, created by the University of Kansas, provide a citizen with an education on how to understand the tools we use everyday. Even those who are not enrolled in the Kansas school can benefit from the resource.
This website provides a basic understanding and set of examples for how contracts can be used to protect individuals, property and influence community change and development. As illustrated in a story published in the Toolbox, understanding how to use and implement a contract is as basic as understanding the importance as “getting it in writing.”
A group of elementary school moms wanted to build a new playground for their students. After a substantial fundraising effort, a professional carpenter was hired to help by providing advice and sharing his tools. As the construction process continued, the mothers had a difficult time getting the carpenter to follow his end of the bargain.
He ended up walking away with the project unfinished, leaving the group wishing they had taken the time to “get something in writing.” In this situation understanding the basics of how a contract works and how to create one would have saved them the time and money lost when the carpenter walked away.
Understanding Consumer Rights
In an area as important as your health, it is vital to understand your rights as a citizen. Medical and health information is private and protected by the federal Privacy Rule that gives you rights over your health information and sets rules and limits on who can access that information.
The Privacy Rule applies to health plans and most healthcare providers and protects billing, medical information and those important conversations you have with your doctor. Browsing a source such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website can give you a short education on pertinent laws, and provide information on who you need to contact should your rights ever be violated.
Informed citizens have a lot of power in the legal system. The Champaign County Health Care Consumers is a citizen action group formed by a grassroots effort that has championed some impressive victories in health care consumer rights. The group is composed of citizens who want to represent the citizen voice in healthcare and rally for access to all. The organization is most noted for bringing national attention to the issue of hospital billing and collection policies in the 2000s.
Tools for Taxes, Wills and Property Agreements
In many areas where you may have once assumed you needed legal advice, a simple scan of the Internet can reveal some useful tools. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has an Interactive Tax Assistant that takes you through a series of tax questions and answers about tax laws. If your income is $58,000 or less, you may qualify to file for free with one of 20 different tax software companies that make their products available online.
Websites such as Rocket Lawyer provide free templates and tools for making documents such as wills and property agreements. For a fee, the website will also allow you to get legal advice without the cost of hiring a personal lawyer. Many state bar associations also offer free or reduced pricing for low-income families who need legal help.
Best Resources on the Web
The following sources are some of the most up to date and accessible legal resources on the web, and can make your legal research more informed and authoritative.
The Cornell Law Library has a variety of web tools available to any user including information on bankruptcy, taxes, intellectual law and government documents.
The Law Library of Congress has a broad range of documents and resources including databases and collections by law topic. The website also includes a tutorial for readers to learn how to use the website and make the best use of its resources.
The American Bar Association lists legal resources by state including free resources and low-income pro-bono options.
The Wall Street Journal has a law blog covering important developments in the legal world on both the national and international news. It covers issues from supreme court decisions, profiles on attorneys, verdicts in important cases and law schools.
Lawhelp.org is an online resource aimed at providing legal aid and self-help resources for California citizens, but it also provides general information and education tools for citizens outside of California. Topics include protections from abuse, housing, consumer and small claims, and senior citizen issues.
Georgetown Law provides a legal encyclopedia and dictionary for research and consultation. It can be a good first step to look up information by topic.
Empowering yourself through education not only lowers the need to hire an attorney at every turn, but also empowers and reinforces your rights as a citizen in the U.S.
Consulting free online resources is an important first step in any education process, and an important tool to solve any legal problem. It is your responsibility as a citizen to be educated about the law, and the Internet is making it far easier to do so.