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Should questions about legal matters be on-topic?

Surprisingly, I couldn't find this question asked on meta yet. The closest I could find is "Should we have a custom close/on hold reason for questions that require a lawyer/accountant?, and the result was a weak preference for "No" to that question.

This recently asked question is what prompted me to ask this here on meta:

How to get a girlfriend off a quitclaim when it was just signed and she is now leaving?

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This is a difficult question. Most questions about legal matters will have a financial component. And many questions about finance deal with laws. Where do we draw a line between what is appropriate for this site, and what is not? Here is what I propose:

We should make questions about legal disputes off topic. By "legal disputes," I mean questions that are clearly about a real dispute between two individuals. Here is why:

  1. In any question about a legal dispute, we are only hearing one side of the story. There is no way for us to find out which details we are not getting.

  2. It will generally be impossible for us to get all the information we need. Without reading a contract, we really can't know who is right in the dispute.

  3. It is not appropriate for us on this site to take sides in a dispute. Let's say for the sake of discussion that we are given every piece of information we need. We know the jurisdiction, we have a copy of any contracts, and we have all of our questions answered. It still would not be appropriate, in my opinion, for us to take a legal side in this matter. That is what courts are for.

  4. If the asker gets the wrong answer here, when they really need to contact a lawyer, it is very bad for them.

A question asking about what a quitclaim deed is, or the process of using one, might be on topic. This question (How to get a girlfriend off a quitclaim...), however, is clearly a legal dispute between the OP and his girlfriend. As is, it should be off-topic, in my opinion.

I suspect that this will be a gray area. For example, under this rule, this question (How do I get out of this disastrous situation?) would have an on-topic component and an off-topic component. The on-topic portion would be dealing with the lease, and the off-topic component would be dealing with the boyfriend. The on-topic portion is probably enough to keep that question open.

I don't think this rule is much different than what has already been happening on this site; however, this would give us something to add to the on-topic page that we could easily point to and say, "Sorry, off-topic."

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    First - beautiful response to this topic. I think this can be edited into the text that will become the "legal matters" section of the on-topic page. And I think we agree the line "I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about a legal dispute" would change a bit, as we're agreeing, there are On-Topic as well as Off-Topic legal matters. I'd much appreciate an update with proposed text to add to the page. – JoeTaxpayer May 25 '15 at 12:01
  • @JoeTaxpayer I don't think it needs to be any more complicated than one line added to the "off-topic" list. Maybe something like: "Questions about a legal dispute between individuals." The "between individuals" part is important, because we don't want to scare away questions about consumer issues that people have with businesses. – Ben Miller May 26 '15 at 2:53
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    Interesting. I've seen "voting to close, this is a legal issue" many times. Do you feel that a high percentage of those were really just "Questions about a legal dispute between individuals." If so, that's pretty simple. I'm thinking there might still be a need for "This is at a level that requires a lawyer." Either way, we're on track to avoid the generic legal/close process. – JoeTaxpayer May 26 '15 at 12:01
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Once the StackExchange Law site finishes the beta stage I think we can be more strict about this and migrate them over to the other site if they are good questions that are too legal to be on topic.

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Many legal questions fall into the categories of too general, or too specific to a single individual, to be a good fit for SE's stated mission .

There is a middle ground of questions about general definitions and principles. So the mere mention of law isn't reason to close.

But requests for legal advice (as opposed to "should I talk to a lawyer") inherently call for expertise at a level we aren't set up to handle. Some (most?) of the recent property questions fall squarely into that bucket.

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I don't think there is a need for specific policy about legal questions separate from other off-topic questions. I can't view the linked question now since it was deleted, but I think questions on such matters are often simply off-topic as they are not really financial in nature.

As a counterpoint to Ben Miller's answer, though: I think we should be cautious about rejecting questions just because they are about a real dispute. If an answer gives incorrect advice or wrongly leads the person away from contacting a lawyer, etc., when that is what they really need to do, then that is a problem with the answer. We should not close questions just because they might lead to bad answers.

Many questions that seem to be of the form "How can I resolve dispute X with person Y" may allow for answers that provide information on the underlying personal-finance issues without attempting to actually resolve that particular dispute. (For instance, we have seen many questions about credit-card disputes with merchants or issuers that can be answered with information on how credit cards work, how user liability is limited by law, how problems may be avoided by switching to a different bank, etc.) I think answers can give useful and relevant information on many such matters, even if the original asker feels unsatisfied because his/her individual issue wasn't "solved".

In short, we should not reject questions that ask for advice on a specific dispute. We should just not give answers that fall into the traps Ben Miller mentions when they try to resolve that specific dispute. Instead, we should give useful information on the topic of the dispute, insofar as we can. (Of course, there are certainly questions that don't provide enough detail to even take a stab, and I think it's fine to close those as unclear if the asker doesn't edit to add needed info.)

  • In my answer, I defined an off-topic legal dispute question as a legal dispute between individuals. I was attempting to exclude questions like your examples, where someone has a consumer issue with a bank or store. Can you think of an example question about a dispute between two individuals that could possibly avoid all of the problems in my answer? – Ben Miller Jun 15 '15 at 2:51
  • @BenMiller: I'm not sure we can clearly distinguish disputes with an individual from disputes with a one-person business. Many disputes with stores or various kinds of service providers (e.g., accountants) are essentially disputes between individuals. I agree that where the actual crux of the problem is interpersonal rather than financial in nature, there may not be room for good answers, but again, I think that's mostly covered by "not enough information". I think your points are good; I'd just rather err on the side of not closing questions if a good answer is at all possible. – BrenBarn Jun 15 '15 at 3:24
  • I like to err on the side of leaving questions open, too. But I think we can and should differentiate between disputes between individuals and disputes between a customer and a business. The lack of information is only one of a few problems with these questions. – Ben Miller Jun 15 '15 at 3:42

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