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Author Topic: A Serendipitous Result: Jailhouse Lawyering Not Unauthorized Practice In Vermont  (Read 464 times)

Silent_Bob

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http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2016/08/the-vermont-supreme-court-this-case-calls-upon-us-to-consider-the-applicability-of-the-prohibition-against-the-unauthorized.html

The Vermont Supreme Court rejected the contention that a "jailhouse lawyer" violated unauthorized practice restrictions

This case calls upon us to consider the applicability of the prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law to the activities of a “jailhouse lawyer.” In February 2016, the State filed an information in this Court against Serendipity Morales, an inmate at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center, alleging she engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by helping fellow inmates in their cases, including performing legal research and drafting motions. In this probable cause review, we consider whether there is probable cause to believe that defendant has committed the alleged offenses. We conclude that there is not and accordingly dismiss the State’s information without prejudice.

The evidence that led to criminal charges

In support of these charges, the State included an affidavit from Sergeant Lloyd Dean, an officer for the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department. In that affidavit, Sergeant Dean alleges that Morales prepared court filings for five fellow inmates. These inmates reported to Dean that: (1) they had heard Morales was familiar with the legal process; (2) they asked Morales for assistance in reviewing and preparing various legal filings on their behalf; (3) Morales assisted each of them, including drafting handwritten motions which the respective inmates reviewed and signed; and (4) Morales did not request or accept any payment for these services. Sergeant Dean further alleged that each of the five inmates was represented by counsel in the matters in question, and that Morales is not a licensed attorney in the State of Vermont. The State does not allege that Morales ever signed pleadings on behalf of the other inmates, held herself out as a licensed attorney, or received any payment for her services.

The court

This Court has historically defined the unauthorized practice of law broadly, to include not merely holding oneself out as an attorney, but also providing services that require legal knowledge or skill such as drafting legal documents and giving legal advice—at least when one charges a fee for those services. More recent social and legal developments reflect a trend toward a somewhat more purpose-driven approach to defining the scope of the unauthorized practice of law.

After a survey of relevant caselaw

Although the above caselaw articulates an expansive definition of the practice of law, as the Attorney General has argued in this case, “This decades-old definition does not reflect the reality of practice in Vermont and does not provide sufficient guidance to prosecutors, practitioners, and the public.” Notwithstanding the above broad definitions of the unauthorized practice, this Court has allowed nonlawyers to appear in court in certain specified circumstances, as have some administrative agencies. In its prosecutorial role, the Attorney General has likewise taken a narrower view of the unauthorized practice. These legal developments have tempered the breadth of the unauthorized practice prohibition, and reflect a recognition that the unauthorized practice prohibition should be applied consistent with its underlying purposes of public protection.

Jailhouse lawyering

we are guided in this case by two factors particular to the inmate context. First, “jailhouse lawyers” who give legal assistance to fellow inmates but are not themselves licensed or formally law trained, are a well-established fixture in the justice system. Second, incarcerated inmates face particular challenges in accessing legal advice, and those challenges raise serious public policy, and in some circumstances, constitutional concerns...

Vermont’s courts have not actively sought to discourage inmates from helping one another with legal issues. In fact, in this appeal, Morales provided us with a transcript of a hearing in which the trial court urged a defendant to seek the help of other inmates who have successfully filed motions on their own behalf while awaiting a decision from the Defender General as to whether counsel will be appointed.

In this context, although there may be some limits on the ways in which an inmate can give legal help to another, we are wary of adopting a definition of unauthorized practice of law that would subject individuals to a finding of criminal contempt for engaging in conduct that has been tolerated and arguably even supported by the State.

The second factor particular to the context of this case is that incarcerated inmates are especially disadvantaged in trying to get legal information and advice. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that “[j]ails and penitentiaries include among their inmates a high percentage of persons who are totally or functionally illiterate, whose educational attainments are slight, and whose intelligence is limited.” Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 487 (1969). A significant number of inmates do not have the wherewithal to determine their rights and advocate for themselves due to limited education and literacy, and in some cases language barriers. These constraints give rise to considerable policy concerns, and perhaps constitutional ones.

Given these considerations, the court found that Morales had not engaged in unauthorized practice.
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Free libertarian

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 I have heard of these "jailhouse lawyers".  (smiley emoticon)
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Russell Kanning

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much advice received from jailhouse lawyers .... none taken
I always felt that they system was very pleased when inmates spent much of their time on "the law"
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