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We have had multiple discussions on what constitutes legal advice here:

Since the close vote changes in June, 2013, we have closed 27 different questions as 'asking for legal advice' that haven't been deleted yet. None of the discussions we've had seem to advocate blanket closing of anything that mentions a law or regulation, yet we seem to be doing that anyway.

My understanding of the previous discussions on what constitutes legal advice is as follows:

Asking What the Law Says is Okay

If a workplace expert (manager, HR, etc.) would be expected to know the information, then it is okay to ask. So if someone asks what the law says regarding, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act, I would hope that we would be able to point the person to a relevant resource.

Asking for Legal Advice Based on the Law Isn't

So if I say, "The law says A, B, C. I want to do X which goes against the spirit of B, but isn't explicitly prohibited under the law. Can I still be in trouble with the law for doing X?" then it is off-topic. I am not asking for what the law says (in order to allow me to make a decision on whether my action is okay or if I want to consult a lawyer to make sure), but rather for legal advice on the interpretation of a law.

From my perspective, the following types of questions should be perfectly reasonable under this policy (given that they are edited to be clear, etc.):

Yet all the above questions were closed.

I would love questions like:

  • What are the laws regarding collection of unemployment in Japan? (answer)
  • What constitutes a disability under the ADA? (answer)

These questions are very handy, and there is a good possibility that we can provide a resource that is better than the ones available, or specific guidance on variations that aren't easily accessible on the web. That is how we can create value, but it also means we can't just auto-close questions which seem to be talking about the law.

Question

  1. What criteria does a question need to stay open when discussing a law/regulation?
  2. How do we communicate those criteria to users? (current advice here)
  • at Prog meta, Glen recently gave an interesting criteria to consider: "If a domain... is difficult for attorneys to figure out and can be highly specific to jurisdiction, then the question isn't a good fit for Programmers." – gnat Mar 4 '14 at 8:40
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    Does StackExchange itself have any sort of policies on this I wonder? This might be worth considering here too, if so. – enderland Mar 4 '14 at 14:48
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    Relevant: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/104821/… – Isaac Moses Mar 4 '14 at 22:17
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We need to make a distinction between questions about what the law is and questions about how the law should be applied to a particular situation. I think the former are valid questions here and the latter are trouble waiting to happen.

I'm a moderator on Mi Yodeya, where we have an analogous problem: people asking what they should do in a particular situation (which is really a question for their rabbis), versus asking what the halacha (Jewish law) on a subject is. We have the following custom close reason:

Questions asking for a practical ruling (p'sak halacha) are off-topic. For practical advice consult your rabbi. Try to broaden the question so it applies to a wider audience, such as by asking what sources are applicable to the situation. (More information.)

Note the "broaden" language here. It's fine for somebody to describe a situation (so long as it's not so localized that it will never be of broader interest), but the question needs to be "what does the law say" or "what are the relevant sources", not "what should I do". I understand that Christianity.SE has a similar policy with what they call pastoral-advice questions; you can ask what official doctrine is, but not what you should do.

When Mi Yodeya was setting its policy we got input from other sites where legal questions come up, but unfortunately I no longer remember the details. A look around the network should turn up other sites where this is an issue; The Workplace isn't alone here and we can learn from prior art.

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    So "What does the law say about my right to sue?" is ok, but "Can I sue?" might be, and "Should I sue?" isn't ok? – Joe Strazzere Mar 4 '14 at 16:38
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    Right. The distinction is that in the one case we're providing information, but in the other we're providing guidance. On Mi Yodeya the latter is both a legal and an ethical concern; even if it's not a legal concern here, people are clearly uncomfortable with this questions to some extent. Also, we aren't Anne Landers. But we can engage with the topics if we're careful. – Monica Cellio Mar 4 '14 at 16:52
  • Thanks! Sounds reasonable if we simply provide links to the authoritative text of the relevant law. But I'd worry about answerers providing their own unique interpretations of the law, and people acting on the interpretations. (I do tend to be a worrier...) – Joe Strazzere Mar 4 '14 at 17:00
  • I emphasized your first line because I think it is critically important and the key to distiguishing good questions with a legal aspect and questions asking for legal advice. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Mar 4 '14 at 21:16
  • @Chad, good point. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Mar 4 '14 at 21:28
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    I would not be opposed to changing our "legal off topic" reason to basically be nearly exactly what the Mi Yodeya one is, honestly. – enderland Mar 4 '14 at 21:59
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    +1 This is exactly along the lines of what I think the approach should be as well. A good resource will provide guidance on where to look/how to consider yourself rather than hand-feeding the conclusion. That's the whole explaining why and how rather than just telling someone what to do. – jmac Mar 4 '14 at 23:42
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Firstly, it's definitely key that questions be about a real, actual problem. It's key that we clarify that our goal isn't to become a law encyclopedia, even of laws that apply to the workplace. Thus, questions should contain plenty of detail about why the person is asking the question so that there's context, so there's something for future visitors to search for.

For instance, take this Freelancing SE question about hiring workers in other countries and add a bit more details about why this person is interested in hiring someone from another country, and you have a question that can be answered factually, with references from a law text, and that address a very specific problem.

A real experiment in allowing legal questions

On Freelancing SE, during the site's private beta, the community overwhelmingly felt legal questions were critical to the site's mission, and some people are actively trying to push for legal questions to be backed 100% with actual official government regulatory documentation. This Freelancing SE answer about whether a business can have two completely different services is an excellent example of how effective this approach can be. There's just something about that answer that instills trust. As a reader, I feel I either have a solid answer or at least know where to go to find an answer for my specific state or jurisdiction.

Supporting legal questions on Workplace SE won't be easy, and I would think this would require very strict guidelines as to what is and isn't an answer, but I do believe that under the right circumstances and with the right community tools and support, this could work.

We're not a beta site anymore

Conversely, we just graduated. Our community fought long and hard to figure out exactly what this site is about. We have a formula in place that clearly works, and adjusting the dials on the machine may have unintended consequences. Therefore, any decision to allow legal questions is one that shouldn't be taken lightly and one that ideally must involve overwhelming support from the community of users who would help moderate them, as well as the creation of a solid, well-thought out plan.

I'd say, for now, we should watch what the Freelancing SE community does and learn from their experiences. This is a new site with a similar topic as The Workplace SE, and it may be best to watch how events there unfold before attempting this here. Let them be the canary in the mine.

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    "I'd say, for now, we should watch what the Freelancing SE community does and learn from their experiences" - sounds like a good plan to me! – Joe Strazzere Mar 5 '14 at 0:09
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Whenever questions of law appear, we need to consider the impact of answers.

Would a reasonable questioner act on the advice of the respondents? And if so, could the questioner get herself/himself in legal difficulty doing so?

It worries me.

"Should my employer pay for my 2 weeks? Am i eligible for Unemployment" seems relatively harmless. At worst, the OP discovers that the advice given was flawed and is either disappointed at not receiving the expected benefit, or was advised incorrectly and never pursued a benefit that could have been gained.

Similarly "Are there any UK laws about allergies in the workplace?" seems harmless. The OP could be mislead into thinking that laws do or do not exist, but eventually will probably discover the truth either way.

Bad legal advice for "Being asked to leave a permanent contract? Legal rights?" could result in someone avoiding a case where they could have received contractual relief for improper dismissal. This may or may not have amounted to a lot of money.

Improper advice for "Illegal interview/application questions in the UK?" could result in a significant lawsuit.

If we start permitting workplace legal advice from people who aren't lawyers, should we also permit workplace medical advice from non-doctors? I know this is a slippery-slope argument, but it is worrisome.

If you look at other (non-stackexchange) sites, you'll see a ton of bad, and potentially dangerous, legal and medical advice being dispensed. It makes me cringe.

In addition, laws and regulations change all the time. What may be proper and legal today, might be completely illegal tomorrow. How permanent do we want our legal answers to be here? How can we convey "this is the law as I understand it today?"

Of course, laws and regulations are highly locale-specific. While locale-specific questions/answers tend to be regarded as off-topic here, questions about the law would seem almost inevitably to be even more local-specific. What is legal in Massachusetts, may well be illegal in Texas (this same-sex partner benefits), and clearly has an entirely different set of laws covering it that another country.

How does our "back it up" policy mesh with dispensing legal advice? Unless you are a lawyer (and sometimes even when you are), you may not have the requisite knowledge to back up an answer concerning the law.

The other thing that worries me is - how do we convey what is and what isn't on topic to the community? A statement like "Questions regarding legality are off-topic" is far easier to understand than "Some legal questions are off-topic, and some are permitted". I think this community struggles with the off- versus on-topic decision enough as it is. You only have to look at the number of [On Hold] questions on the front page to see how difficult it is for questioners.

Perhaps I just worry too much.

  • FYI Joe, the 'Being asked to leave a permanent contract? Legal rights?' actually asks about whether or not 4-day notice on a permanent contract is within an employer's rights. While it needs to be brushed up, pointing someone to regulations on what notice periods they are should not be harmful, especially if accompanied by a notice that this is just what the law says, not what their experience with the law will necessarily be. – jmac Mar 4 '14 at 14:20
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    @jmac - if we limited ourselves to providing links to more authoritative sites, I wouldn't be as worried. But I do worry about the interpretation of laws by non-lawyers, anecdotes, etc. – Joe Strazzere Mar 4 '14 at 15:31
  • This is a good question for thinking about this. – enderland Mar 4 '14 at 16:16
  • Your examples are clearly asking for legal advice. Questions like How long can I collect unemployment for? We can answer because it relies on basic legal knowledge not an application of the law in specific circumstances. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Mar 4 '14 at 21:13
  • @Chad, we cannot tell the person how long they can personally collect unemployment for, but we can most certainly point them to the resources that explain the criteria for how long someone can collect unemployment. My goal is not to have us provide legal advice, it is to figure out how we can create criteria to allow questions that request resources rather than advice along the lines of what Monica posted in her answer. – jmac Mar 4 '14 at 23:43
  • @Joe, under no circumstances do I believe we should interpret law, or provide opinion on how the law will apply. Those are both in the realm of what lawyers do and are not appropriate. Providing case law, regulations, and other objective (non-subjective) advice should be okay, as you say. The question is, do we want questions along those lines, and if so, how do we explain what is okay and what isn't? – jmac Mar 4 '14 at 23:45
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    @jmac - I have outlined reasons why I feel answering these questions is too risky. I've indicated several times in the past that I struggle with many of the rules here. My feeling is that they are hard to interpret, and don't seem to be "enforced" evenly. That happens in some forums (and particularly in Workplace, where many of the topics are "squishy"). I don't feel that it's a good idea to add yet one more squishy category. – Joe Strazzere Mar 4 '14 at 23:54
  • @Jmac - I think Monica's answer does that. As for the unemployment there are standards that are set and we can explain how they apply. Just like we can explain how FMLA and tax withhold works and how the site users can make use of that. Standards and regulations are explainable. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Mar 5 '14 at 14:53

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