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What do we do when we can’t answer?

How did we answer that?

Sometimes someone comes in and what they want is outside of the scope of what we offer, or we have a very limited ability to help. So, what do we do when that happens?

I had a patron come in a couple of weeks ago wanting to know if the person named in a case was the same person he knew. He had found an appeal online where the name matched someone he knew. The appeals court was in a small Midwest area not highly populated and the name in the case was not common to the area and he was wondering if there was a way to confirm an identity match. He had all of the vital statistics of the individual including an address.

Generally when we know there are limited resources or that OUR resources are limited we will first try to set expectations. Depending on how receptive the person is, we might try to use it as an opportunity to educate about what our resources are and what we can help people with.

In this instance, our patron was receptive to trying to locate what information we could and learning about resources. We made sure to set expectations that we might not find anything but that we could try.

My first step was to try and locate the case. He had a citation (a unique identifier that has its roots in how cases were reported in books) which made it easier to locate online. In this instance, we used Westlaw because our subscription sometimes includes documents/filings. Sometimes those filings may contain additional information about the parties. It was a long shot that there would be something and unsurprisingly, there were no attached documents. However, we were able to find the name of the representing attorney.

Another long shot was to look at Court Listener, a way to get free court documents IF they have been added to the site. Since this was an appeals case, there was a shot at it being there, but again, unsurprisingly, no documents.

I also helped him to find the website of the court the case originated in (as well as the courts of subsequent appeals). Being a very small court, their site was not robust in information, but I was able to locate their court records page and how to request documents.

While I was not able to help our patron confirm the identity of the person in the case, I was able to give him a couple of leads: contact the local courts, records department where there is one or the main contact if not, and/or contact the attorney or attorney’s records if the attorney is no longer practicing.

When people come in with questions outside the scope of what we offer, we try to find a way to help them. Sometimes that help is limited to a referral. We rarely find out what happens next in someone’s story. Did our patron follow up with local referrals? Were they able to find out if the person they know and the person in the case were the same person? We hope that our patron was able to find their answers, but I doubt we will ever know.


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