In today's world of online dictionaries and Wikipedia, online research and citation of online sources is becoming more prevalent in legal writing for both attorneys and judges. But what can and should you cite as an attorney? What should you avoid? And how do you know what's accurate and what's not? Unfortunately, there isn't a clear answer, but by following the tips below, you can make an informed decision when necessary:
- Always check the applicable rules and professional rules of conduct for guidance. While most rules do not yet directly address these issues, they may at least provide some guidance.
- Research your source to determine if it is reliable. If there is any question as to the reliability of the information, it most likely is best not to use that source and find an alternative source if one is available. While some online resources are generally reliable, others are not. For example, while it does occasionally contain mistakes, Wikipedia has been found to be accurate as any other encyclopedia in multiple studies. But because Wikipedia consists of user-generated content, you would be wise to double check any information received through Wikipedia with other sources when available.
- Know what the courts are citing and what they are avoiding. For example, Wikipedia has been cited for general propositions by multiple courts but has not been widely accepted for use. Urbandictionary.com has also been cited by multiple courts, and Mapquest.com appears to be generally cited by courts throughout the country.
- Be careful using online citations. Web addresses change on a regular basis, and as a result, your citations may not be correct by the time someone else is trying to find the source you are citing.
- Most importantly, ask yourself whether the information you want to cite would be useful for the court. Is it something the court should consider? In general, if the information is collateral to the real issues involved, don't cite it. On the other hand, definitions or issues for which the court can take judicial notice can generally be cited without concern if the information comes from reliable source.
Overall, use common sense and good judgment and you should reach the right decision.