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Family Matters: Researching Family Law on the Internet

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Oct/Nov 2003) under the title, "All in the Family." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


29 January 2004, select revisions as indicated on 17 October 2007. "Do you know any family lawyers?" Lawyer X asks Lawyer Y.

"Maybe," his friend jests. "What's it worth to you?"

Having helped Y out of plenty of jams, X doesn't hesitate. "How about the next time you ask me for help, I give it to you?"

"Alright, wise guy, let me think about it. What's up, anyway?"

X tells him about the continuing legal education program he had agreed to teach for a group of solo practitioners and small firm lawyers in New York about Internet research. "I need some family law research examples," he explains. "But I don't know anyone who practices family law."

Later, Lawyer X receives an email message from Y. It contains a long list of family law research questions. Y tells X he decided to put the question to the email group for solo practitioners known as SOLOSEZ. Several participating lawyers provided enough ideas to fill a half-day program.

On the day of the seminar, Lawyer X presents a number of hypothetical research scenarios while discussing resources and strategies for finding different types of information on the Web. The scenarios aid him in illustrating how to use several free or low-cost Web sites and search utilities. Throughout the program, X tries to emphasize the need for efficient and effective research strategies.

One hypothetical question, suggested by a SOLOSEZ lawyer, gives X the opportunity to make several points. The scenario involves a woman, who comes to New York with her child to escape an abusive ex-husband. Under the circumstances, how long must she reside in the state before filing for child custody?

Before initiating a search, Lawyer X points out that a successful research strategy begins with analyzing a question's key concepts and identifying the potential sources of information. Analyzing a question helps you categorize it as well as select the search terms likely to retrieve relevant results. In this case, one of the key concepts concerns jurisdiction.

Knowing this steers you toward appropriate sources of information. Other key concepts include "domestic violence," "escape," "length of residence" and "child custody." Because Lawyer X knows little about family law, he converts these concepts to the following keywords:

  • Abuse, domestic violence

  • Escape, flee, run away

  • New York

  • Residence, reside

  • Child custody

Experienced family law attorneys can probably suggest better key terms, but Lawyer X must begin with what he knows. As the research proceeds, he can then illustrate how to modify a search strategy based on what he learns during the investigative process.

Next, he addresses the issue of identifying potential sources of information. One trick professional researchers use when confronted with a question in an unfamiliar field is to ask who cares about the information, or who is responsible for it? Other than the State of New York and the parents of the child, those who care would include advocates for victims of domestic violence.

If you know of such an advocacy group in New York, its Web site should serve as a useful starting point. Also, when you think that a state or other government entity has an interest in the matter, then look for relevant statutes, regulations, guidance memoranda or other legal documents. If you cannot identify potential sources like a New York advocacy group by name, then carefully review the results of a search engine query for matches that fit this description.

Ready to launch the online investigation, Lawyer X proposes three different approaches to the research. Your choice of strategy should depend on what you know about the topic as well as the resource you plan to use.

Because of its popularity, X starts with Google. He constructs a search statement using the keywords he listed earlier. He explains to the group that Google automatically joins terms with the Boolean AND connector. Consequently, you do not have to use it in your query. You also should not use a plus sign (+) unless you want to search a term that Google considers a stop word. And while you can connect terms with the Boolean OR, you cannot nest keywords (enclose multiple terms connected by OR in parentheses).

The query looks like this:

"child custody" "new york" residence OR reside "domestic violence" OR abuse escape OR flee OR "run away"

The long search statement lets Lawyer X demonstrate one of Google's limitations. It cannot process words in a query beyond the tenth term. In this example, Google ignores "OR flee or 'run away'." Lawyers should also know that Google stops indexing documents at about 120K. If your keywords appear toward the end of a lengthy legal document, Google cannot match the document to your query.

Reminding the audience that a New York advocacy group for victims of domestic violence would make a good starting point for the research, X reviews the search results for domain names or titles that fit this description. Toward the top of the list, he finds an item with the title, "Comparing UCCJEA and UCCJA." While the acronyms mean nothing to him, the domain - gulpny.org - suggests a potentially relevant not-for-profit organization. (17 October 2007. The article moved to the organization's new Web site and received a minor title change. It's now "Comparison Chart of New York's Current Interstate Custody Law the UCCJA vs. UCCJEA.")

Sponsored by the Greater Upstate Law Project, the article compares provisions of two uniform child custody laws. The governor of New York vetoed the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act at the time of the writing. The laws appear relevant to the question. (17 October 2007. On 1 January 2004, the Greater Upstate Law Project merged with the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester (PILOR) to form the Empire Justice Center.)

Going back to the Web site's home page, Lawyer X finds a wealth of articles and case annotations, including several on point with regard to the child custody issue.

The second strategy entails using the New York statutes. Because the state would have an interest in women and children who come to escape domestic violence, the answer to the question ought to appear in its laws. If not in the statutes, then you should find it in the regulations, interpretative documents or case law.

Two separate government-sponsored Web sites--the Assembly and the Senate--offer New York statutes. Neither, however, provide a search engine or a topical index. Afraid that he might miss something, X suggests a third strategy.

When you know little about a legal topic, a treatise or legal encyclopedia often serve as good starting points. Both generally cover the basics and provide additional references. But where will you find a custody law primer on the Web?

One place to look for basic information on a variety of legal topics is the Nolo Press Web site. If you browse or search Nolo's Legal Encyclopedia, you should find an Interstate Custody Arrangements FAQ (17 October 2007. This FAQ is no longer available). It summarizes how states make custody determinations under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, which suggests the answer to the hypothetical question is six months. However, X cautions that lawyers should update and verify the legal information they find before relying on it, even when it comes from a reputable site like Nolo.

Selecting search terms from the title of the uniform law--"child custody jurisdiction," X connects to FindLaw to query it for additional information. This strategy uncovers an article from the site's Family Law Library, which outlines jurisdiction issues under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act and the Hague Convention on Child Abduction. It, too, suggests that the answer to the hypothetical question is six months.

Should the research end with this verification? No, because neither source is authoritative. Moreover, you still have to determine whether the uniform law, and this interpretation of it, it still good law in New York.

Lawyer X first decides to read the relevant sections of the law. He illustrates how searching Google for "uniform laws" finds a collection of final and draft uniform and model laws at the Biddle Law Library of the University of Pennsylvania. After confirming the information contained in the legal articles, he connects to LexisONE to find out how the courts in New York interpret the relevant sections.

He again modifies the query--the one he originally performed using Google--to incorporate terms from the uniform law. It now looks like this:

uniform child custody jurisdiction w/25 (temporary or emergency)

Even though LexisONE contains no opinions from New York state trial courts, the search retrieves one recent case--Weyant v. Barnett, 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 1757, which reveals that the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act is no longer good law in New York. The state repealed the law and adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which went into effect on April 28, 2002.

Lawyer X returns to the Biddle collection of uniform laws to review the relevant sections of the new law. Some of the comments address the issue of protecting a child whose parent is the victim of abuse. They indicate that under such circumstances, a woman could apply for temporary child custody immediately.

Finally, wanting to read the codified law, Lawyer X turns to the finding aid, Full-text State Statutes and Legislation on the Internet, where he hopes to find New York statutes at a Web site that he can search. It refers him to FindLaw. He runs the query, "uniform child custody jurisdiction," to find Article 5-A of the New York Consolidated Laws on Domestic Relations. With this citation, he returns to the statutes at the New York State Assembly site in order to retrieve the text from an authoritative source.

Special note: I would like to thank the SOLOSEZ lawyers who responded to my plea for help. You provided many useful research examples. I would also like to thank Carolyn Elefant, who thought of posting the question to SOLOSEZ in the first place.



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Created: 29 January 2004
Revised: 17 October (text revisions as indicated)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/family_law.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com