VISTA — By law, California mandates that every county have a law library accessible to the public. Answering that legal call to action, San Diego County has four such libraries, including one for North County in Vista.
That library, the North County Law Library, sits within a stone’s throw of the Vista Detention Center, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department North Coastal Station and the San Diego Superior Court’s North County Division. And it exists, explained Branch Manager Debra Morse, to serve the public and laypeople just as much as it acts as a resource for attorneys.
“We’re a full-service law library that is available to the public,” Morse said. “The tagline on all of our publications is ‘law made public,’” Morse said. “So we have a strong mandate to make legal resource materials and legal practice materials available to everyone. Anyone can come in and use our facilities free of charge” and have access to both hard copy law library book materials, as well as electronic law library research tools.
The North County Law Library also plays host to forums and events, including its ongoing “Know the Law” lecture series. On Oct. 15, as part of that series and as a case in point of the type of educational activities it organizes, the law library co-convened a 101-level discussion with the San Diego County Library’s San Marcos branch on the First Amendment led by Rancho Santa Fe-based attorney Carla DiMare.
On Sept. 27, as another example, the North County Law Library co-hosted a forum on Landlord Tenant law at the San Diego County Library’s Vista branch. Forthcoming at the Vista library branch, the North County Law Library will also oversee a forum on Trusts and Estates on Oct. 25 and on Immigration Law on Nov. 29, with each session beginning at 6 p.m. All of those events will fit under the “Know the Law” series banner.
Morse said that the North County Law Library held a total of 14 events during the 2017-2018 cycle, attended by 347 attendees. Back in May, 83 people attended a free legal clinic — in which attendees could discuss legal questions with practicing attorneys free of charge — which was put together in concert with the North County Bar Association.
DiMare lauded the law library for “helping people learn and solve problems,” adding that she has “seen people at the law library who are faced with major life problems, such as an eviction or loss of a pension, and they have nowhere else to turn for help. The library gives them hope. I think we are truly fortunate that our government funds libraries.”
Those funds cited by DiMare come in the form of legal filing fees collected by the county court system, a percentage of which go to the law library as a standard budgetary matter and which served 94.7 percent of the San Diego Law Library’s budget during the 2016 fiscal year, according to its most recent annual report. The rest of the money, then, comes from fundraising and memberships and the San Diego Law Library raises that money through its 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Law Library Justice Foundation.
Morse noted that the North County Law Library is particularly important not just for Vista, but for the whole landscape of northern San Diego County, because the closest library of its sort north of Vista sits in Santa Ana, California in Orange County, while for many in North County it is a far trek east to El Cajon or south to the downtown and Chula Vista locales. She added that about 60 percent of library attendees are laypeople, while 40 percent are attorneys. Some 48,000 people came into and out of the doors of the San Diego Law Library system in 2017-2018, according to its annual report for that time period.
What differentiates the state’s county law libraries from their counterparts in law schools, Morse explained, is that the university variety serve more of an academic purpose.
She explained that the county law libraries, by juxtaposition, provide practical legal resources for those who will likely use them as practitioners within the legal system. That includes attorneys, people trying to get criminal records expunged while trying to apply for a job, or people simply attempting to put their best feet forward while representing themselves in the legal system. The San Diego Law Library’s website also provides dozens of free legal guides on its websites in areas ranging from family law for divorce, Indian law research, military law, tax law, border law and a whole mountain of other materials.
California’s county law library system was created vis legislation passed in 1891 and is now governed and regulated under the state’s Business and Professions Code in Sections 6300-6363. The first sentence of that law reads that, “There is in each county of this State a board of law library trustees, which governs the law library established for the county under the provisions of this chapter.”
While every county in California has at least one law library under law, only 12 other counties in the whole U.S. have equivalent public law libraries, according to the website PublicLibraries.com.