Sacramento, CA, September 17, 2009 --(PR.com
)-- California’s proposed Assembly Bill 590 would have effectively outlawed many legal professionals who offer self-help services to consumers handling their own legal matters.
While the legislative intent was to make the courts more accessible to the self-represented litigants, increase the amount of pro bono legal assistance provided by attorneys, and protect consumers from fraudulent “legal aid” businesses, AB 590 contained strong prohibitions against the delivery of self-help legal services. These provisions went unnoticed for months – until the Alliance of Legal Document Assistant Professionals (ALDAP) “broke the story” a mere 10 days before the final deadline for legislative amendments.
Upon the discovery of the troubling language contained in the bill – which would have made it illegal to sell forms, documents or self-help services that are offered by a non-profit legal aid organization or court clinic – letters were sent and telephone calls were placed, expressing ALDAP’s concern regarding the negative impact this would have – not only on registered legal document assistants, but also attorneys who offer limited scope representation, immigration consultants, and self-help legal professionals who are regulated under federal law, such as bankruptcy petition preparers.
“When ALDAP mustered its legislative forces, we were not content to merely carve out a narrow exception for LDAs,” said Kathleen Mountjoy, a dual-professional paralegal and legal document assistant and president of the association. “ALDAP is deeply committed to big picture – balancing consumer protections with judicial access.”
“The Assembly Judiciary Committee’s response was swift and commendable,” said Mountjoy. “I received a call the very next day from the Deputy Chief Counsel. I was delighted to hear his assurances that the legislators ‘in no way meant to prohibit LDAs from doing the much necessary and good work’ that we do for consumers, and that the bill would be amended accordingly.”
But there was much more work to be done.
Other legal document assistants had become involved in the effort, and negotiated a legislative amendment that exempted registered legal document assistants and unlawful detainer assistants from the exclusionary language. ALDAP, however, remained a steadfast advocate for the availability of a range of affordable legal services, offered by a wide variety of self help legal professionals – with integrity and in compliance with California law.
“By this time, California’s LDAs could rest easy knowing their livelihoods had been protected,” said Suzanne Ervine, a registered legal document assistant and paralegal, and ALDAP’s vice president. “However, ALDAP’s board of directors continued to take issue with the remaining prohibitions against other self-help legal service providers, and the resulting elimination of several options consumers may select for assistance in resolving their legal issues.”
“Unfortunately, that narrow LDA exception failed to include those otherwise exempt from [Business and Professions Code] section 6400, and would have limited those who lawfully provide self-help services as described in the Code, but who are exempt from the registration and bonding requirements,” said Mountjoy.
ALDAP pressed on.
“As the law currently stands, consumers facing legal issues generally have five options, which range from extremely costly to free-of-charge: 1) attorney representation; 2) self-help services provided by an attorney offering limited scope services; 3) self-help services provided by a registered legal document assistant; 4) no-cost legal aid through a non-profit organization, court clinic, or other agency; or 5) completely on their own with no assistance,” Ervine wrote in a letter to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
“A blanket prohibition on assistance in the form of limited scope services within the self-help context could put consumers in the unfortunate predicament of having to choose between the high cost of full attorney representation – which they cannot afford – or the pro bono services offered by the legal aid organization,” said Ervine. “ALDAP wanted to ensure that the final language of AB 590 would not limit the choices of consumers, by eliminating the mid-range options – limited scope services from an attorney, or self-help services from a non-attorney legal professional.”
Again, the Assembly Judiciary Committee’s response was immediate and admirable. Rather than simply stating that the prohibitions did not apply to legal document assistants, AB 590 was amended to entirely remove the prohibitions against providing legal forms and self-help services. “Given the difficulty in balancing the conflicting public policy implications, we believe this is the better approach,” said Mountjoy.
The amended AB 590 has passed both the Assembly and the California State Senate. It must be signed by the governor to become effective.
ALDAP is a California non-profit, mutual benefit corporation serving registered Legal Document Assistants and freelance paralegals. ALDAP’s mission is to promote the integrity of the LDA profession, generate awareness about non-attorney legal services, and protect the public by educating consumers about self-representation and the unauthorized practice of law. For more information, visit http://www.aldap.org.