11

I've been thinking about this for a while - this is me without my moderator hat on, and no claim is made as to whether the other mods agree with or support these views.

There are a large number of answers without references. Like, a lot of them. And where the question hasn't already cited a case or statute that it's asking about, it may certainly be a problem.

Why?

Because, there's no way for the person asking the question to validate or verify the response you give. And when we're providing information on the law, this is pretty important.

In most legal systems, only judges and legislators get to make up new law. This means that what we're saying, most of the time, is going to be an interpretation or quotation of something someone else has said in the past.

This issue has been discussed before: Do answers need to reference written laws or court cases?

The highest voted answer (at the moment):

An answer will always be improved by a citation, but I don't think they should be mandatory. In many jurisdictions access to judgments is not free, so it would be a high bar to entry if we demanded that every answer cite correctly.

People can always come along later and add missing citations to answers if that would improve them.

While this is true, it's probably best not to get in the habit of writing answers based on common sense. To quote myself:

The main problem is that people tend to agree with commonsensical answers, even if they're not legally sound :/

So in summary, my opinion:

  • Unless you're answering a question about a case or statute, your answer is almost1 always better with some kind of reference - and it's better for the person asking the question, too.
  • Please, please don't answer with something that just seems right (I hope we don't have anyone doing this anyway, but included it for the avoidance of doubt)

Thoughts? Additions? Disagreements?


1. I mean, the reference obviously needs to be suitable for the answer - and the more specific the better

5 Answers 5

9

All of my answers on Law Stack Exchange contain references. I'm not trying to tout that; it's simply because I'm used to it, coming primarily from Stack Exchange sites that either require or strongly encourage references. But it's vital for me to have references in my answers, because I'm not a lawyer. I have never been to law school (or college, yet). I have never been in a courtroom. I don't even know any lawyers. I barely even like courtroom dramas.

Stack Exchange sites are designed so that questions can be answered by experts. Everyone's proud of that. Every question deserves to have an expert answer. So why do I answer questions on Law, given that I'm not an expert? It's because I can cite experts. I know how to do research. When I answer, I quote prior decisions and the words of legal experts on the issue at hand. When possible, my answers come from experts - piecemeal, admittedly, but based on expert ideas.

Many of us lament that fact that there are not many lawyers on Law. It is the great tragedy so far for the site. Fixable? Yes. But we need answers from legal experts to make the site as good as it can be. So what can we do, given that most of us are not lawyers? We can cite lawyers and legal experts.

My rationale for giving references for any and all claims is that every question deserves an expert answer. Not all of us can claim to be experts, but we can research and find what experts say on the issue. Then we can say that the question has gotten answers it deserves.

If we do this, Law Stack Exchange can be a great success.

7

I pretty much agree, but as a serial offender in this regard let me explain why I often post answers without references: My opinion, at this stage of beta, is that any answer (including an incorrect one) is better than no answer.

The reason even incorrect answers have been helpful is that they prompt those who know better to at least chime in with a quick, "That's not right," and a downvote. And often they decide, "Well I don't have time to produce what I consider to be a good answer, but I can certainly rattle one off that's better than that!"

In the worst case the incorrect answer is left standing. That's a risk on every Stack Exchange site, and is specifically addressed here: How do I know what the correct answer is?

In practice my impression is that (for this site at least) bad answers often stimulate better answers.

I don't ever intend to post a bad answer, but I often don't have time to post a properly documented answer. I aspire to improve them when I have more time, but in order to maximize user engagement I've decided that a poorly-documented answer now is better than an excellent answer later (or, with my current schedule, perhaps never).

Ideally every answer would be worthy of printing in Law Review, and I agree we should aim for that level. (I have an enduring dream that we'll manage to attract a lot of law students to this site who can and will raise the caliber of answers towards that ideal.) However we should not let perfect be the enemy of good ... or even barely adequate if that's all the community can provide at the moment.


Addendum: There is a particularly broad exception to this discussion that I would love to see again: answers provided by experienced lawyers. Unfortunately, to date I have only seen one user who made a career in the practice of law and who has made significant contributions to this site. (He never touted that fact, so I'm not going to "out" him.) Many of his answers are to questions about how the law works in real life, so they were more experiential and logical than referential. But when he gave a crisp answer that could have been annotated, but wasn't, I gave a tremendous amount of credit to his experience. As we know, if practicing lawyers do post on this site they might take some pains to hide their identity. It would be great if they put something like, "Reference: 25 years of legal practice," but perhaps we'll cross that bridge when we get there....

6

If you're "answering based on common sense" that means that you're guessing.

Writing a guess as an answer is a really bad thing because guesses are by their nature unreliable. When I'm doing research, It's always a pain to find questions flooded with unreliable answers. It dilutes the usefulness of the Q&A site.

If you detect an answer that's looks like it's a guess then you should downvote relentlessly, because an unreliable answer is a useless answer.


On the flip side, the existence of references does not imply quality. If an answer gives references, and those references look like they're from blog writers who are guessing, then you should still downvote relentlessly. It's not the references or lack that is the important part. It is the reliability. References are merely a tool that can provide reliability.

5

References are good for several reasons:

  • They allow readers to not simply trust the answerer.
  • They let readers start to learn how to do their own research in the future, by learning about the types of references that experts look to.
  • They let people that disagree with the answer know exactly the chain of statute/reasoning/precedent that the answer is leaning on. This starts any disagreement on common ground. For example, perhaps the answer depends on an over-reading of a particular case's holding. If the answer doesn't reference the case, other experts can't really start a fruitful conversation about the discrepancy.

Of course, the type of reference will differ depending on the type of question. For example, "Is X infringement in Canada" will have different types of references than "What did Justice Alito mean when he said superlegislative in the Obergefell dissent."

4

I'm brand new here (a little surprising given my background and interests), but I've already seen enough wrong answers, all without references, to be motivated to come here and opine about it.

First, IAAL (not currently practicing). While I'm here just for personal value, I think this site could be a tremendously valuable resource for both non-lawyers and even lawyers as a wiki (albeit in Q&A form) of sorts where people can get preliminary answers to basic questions which are sufficient to lead them in the right direction to research and learn a complete answer to their specific situation, or at least be able to speak to a lawyer about it with more confidence and understanding.

But that only works if the answers are accurate, and works much, much better if answers point to authority(ies) that the reader can turn to to learn more. It doesn't work at all if people just post answers off-the-cuff, offering only their reputation score for support.

Does the voting/reputation system do enough here? I'd say not. Law is uniquely different from the other topics on SE. Take SO for example (my usual stomping ground). If an answer is wrong, it's usually pretty easy to find out right away when the solution offered doesn't work. Or take a site like Seasoned Advice; if someone tries a cooking technique and it doesn't work, there's rarely any longterm harm done. Or Physics; very hard for lay readers to gauge accuracy, but also pretty much no negative consequences of wrong answers for the reader other than scientific ignorance.

Here, there are two factors which make wrong/unsupported answers uniquely dangerous: (1) average users can't easily verify them; AND (2) the consequences of being misinformed about a legal issue can be dire. Yes, yes, everyone knows the answers aren't legal advice. Yet, when someone googles a legal question and sees a broad answer they feel is in their favor, how many of them will really go on to ask a lawyer and not simply go the rest of their lives assuming what they read once on the Internet was right and act accordingly?

And no, voting/reputation isn't sufficient here. On any SE site, Q&As get votes largely based on their popularity, not their accuracy, and I can see this site is no exception. And this is self-evidently true. If I post an answer about subject matter jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit under the Little Tucker Act, how many votes do I think I will get? Probably not as many as if I answer a question about a certain former president currently on trial.

Now say I earn 10s of 1000s of points by answering popular questions, even assuming my answers are perfectly good and correct. Then I go on to opine on something more esoteric that I don't know that much about. The reader has absolutely no way to distinguish between topics I know about and those I don't. That # next to my name will literally be the only thing a reader without prior knowledge of the subject can use to gauge the accuracy of my answer - unless I also offer support. And if it's not a popular topic, the chances of someone more knowledgeable coming along and challenging the answer are not all that high.

So all this is to say that if there were some mechanism - and I'm not saying I know what it would be - to encourage if not force answerers to include authority whenever appropriate/possible, I think it would improve the quality and reliability of the site and further its goals quite profoundly. At minimum if an answer is based on personal experience, or even just informed opinion, then that should be made clear. I also think that for members who identify themselves as lawyers, the responsibility to do this is even higher, since they have both the means of finding support and the likelihood of their answers being assigned more weight by readers.

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