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April 08, 2022 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

Litigants Need Help? Send Them to the Library!

By Hon. Richard Ginkowski, Pleasant Prairie, WI

Many communities are engaging in collaborations aimed at improving access to justice, particularly for people who might “fall through the cracks” in receiving services. A seemingly unlikely but emerging as important community connecting point is the public library.  

Evolving from being repositories for books libraries provide several services to serve a wide swath of justice system clientele. To varying degrees most libraries, even in small communities, can help people understand and navigate many critical tasks. For example:

  • Unrepresented people (likely the bulk of a traffic court’s caseload) who get a traffic or ordinance violation citation can find and copy state statutes and local ordinances. 
  • Do-it-yourself forms and kits for self-represented people in family and small claims cases are available at many libraries along with computers, printers and copiers. 
  • For those without computer and Wi-Fi access at home libraries not only help self-represented people do legal research and fill in forms but also assist with electronic filing of court documents. 
  • It’s not uncommon for unemployed probationers and noncustodial parents in family court cases to be ordered to find employment. Libraries can help with resume preparation as well as searching online for job vacancies and filling out applications for employment. 
  • Libraries assist homeless litigants with computer and internet access and setting up and accessing an E-mail account. 

Taking it to the next level are cities such as Racine, Wisconsin. The public library has a full-time social worker which library director Angela Zimmermann says fulfills an evolving “human centered holistic approach with our services.” 

Zimmermann says she and her staff saw an increase in service requests from people dealing with homelessness, addiction, hunger, mental illness and domestic violence. Libraries are a “venerable institution” providing a “safe, welcoming and inclusive space” for “people through every walk of life,” she added. 

Ashley Cedeño, the Racine library’s social worker, said many people in need find it easier to connect with help through the library. There’s no stigma attached to going to the library,” Cedeño said, noting that most of the people who come to her need “housing or financial assistance for housing, help with a job application or just a listening ear.” 

Cedeño noted that about a fifth of U.S. public libraries provide some form of social work services and the number is growing.

By Hon. Richard Ginkowski

Pleasant Prairie, WI

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