Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Legislation To Fear

I Was Once Blind But Now I See

Honestly challenged when it comes to legislation, it never dawned on me until recently that proposed changes to the statutes governing non-attorney, "self-help" legal service providers would not necessarily occur in Business and Professions Code section 6400, et seq. I subscribe to a daily LegisWatch, but only in the areas of law concerning LDAs, paralegals and the practice of law.

With the recent increase in court fees and diminishing court programs and services, I decided that I wanted to learn more about why and how these new conditions might affect pro per litigants and access to justice. I decided to read up on Senator Thomas Harkin's S.718, The Civil Access to Justice bill. Of course, as research is a never-ending path to knowledge, I limited futher research to legislation within the state of California.

Imagine my surprise - and concern - when I learned of pending legislation: AB 590, authored by Mike Feuer, Assemblyman and Chair of the Judiciary Committee, which presently contains language which could potentially limit the services provided by California's legal document assistants.

The bill itself is well intentioned. It is fashioned to bring more access to self-representing litigants. Our court system is less than perfect, as it was designed as an adversarial process; however, it is the oldest, most recognized system. Those who support the bill contend, quite accurately, that justice is denied to those who do not have the knowledge and legal acumen to competently represent themselves in a court of law; a reality that results in confusion, delays, increased costs to litigants and the courts, and a great deal of wasted time, energy and funds. One would think an overhaul of our justice system is needed, but failing that, our legislators are trying to level the playing ground.

Generally speaking, AB 590 would require attorneys to provide pro bono services to litigants meeting a certain poverty level. The bill also provides that use of the (now) common trademark, "Legal Aid," by anyone other than a non profit would be a crime. It also would provide that the court charge fees to prevailing parties to fund additional programs and services provided by court clinics.

None of this seems too troubling until you read further and note that this legislation seemingly would restrict "anyone" from providing any forms, documents or self help services provided by a legal aid non-profit organization or court clinic. To do so would be punishable by law. This provision, as written, restricts LDAs and attorneys who perform limited scope representation from charging for their services.

AB 590 should contain additional language in the form of an exclusion as to those of us authorized under section 6400, who perform self help services on behalf of consumers.

ALDAP has researched Mike Feuer and found him to be an advocate for access to justice and consumer protections. Mr. Feuer has always supported consumer protection oriented legislation. He was, at one time, the executive director of Bet Tzedek - The House of Justice, a non profit human and poverty rights organization which is internationally known for its work in providing unique advocacy and support for people living in poverty, and for communities victimized by discrimination and civil rights abuses. Feuer seems to be an all around good guy.

ALDAP wrote to Feuer, asking for clarification of the intention of the writers and for exclusionary language to be included in AB 590. We also requested his leadership to enhance the existing consumer protection statutes associated with section 6400, a project ALDAP has been working on for more than two years. We are publishing our letter to Feuer and hope to hear from him soon. We will keep you apprised.

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