Can anyone call themselves a “paralegal?”

John Stossel of Fox News says his show tonight will include “interview David Price, a Kansas City paralegal who went to jail for half a year because he helped 86- year old Eldon Ray write a letter defending himself against the charge of “unlicensed practice of architecture.”  I’ve never seen John’s show and, if the contect of the show is as misleading as the announcement, I suspect it is just as well. I’ve reviewed a number of news reports on Mr. Price’s situation. Perhaps the most comprehensive and clearest is here.

There are a lot of problems with John’s characterization of David Price, what Price did, and why his was in jail, but my chief concern here is that Price is characterized as a paralegal. It does not appear that Price has any education or training that would justify that designation.  He also has little experience other than having “challenged dozens of judges, attorneys and court officials in the Kansas justice system with a variety of lawsuits found to be frivolous by the state and federal courts.”

The story linked above states, ”

However, it becomes clear through his own admission that his personal battle with the legal system is deeply rooted in a domestic relations case that went awry. Court files indicate Price filed legal motions for four years to stop the adoption of his biological child after the court severed his parental rights in 2001 and allowed the mother of the child and her husband to voluntarily put the child up for adoption.

Price said the experience spurred his interest in the law, his distrust for the system and the desire to advise others.”

If the news reports are correct, while the experience spurred his interest in the law, it apparently did not spur any interest in obtaining education or training in the law before starting to give advice. Stossel appears to argue that there should be no government licensing of anyone. In essence any one should be able to say they are a paralegal, a lawyer, a doctor, or a pilot, regardless of their knowledge, training, education, or experience. Apparently he’d just let the free market decide whether they survive competing against those that have actual knowledge of the topic.

In my last post I suggested that UPL laws that restrict legal services solely to attorneys were not the best way to deal with the difficulties that arise when people go to non-lawyers for assistance because they cannot afford an attorney. Kansas acknowledges this problem. The story linked above includes this:

While nonlawyers aren’t permitted to advise pro se litigants, a committee established by the Kansas Supreme Court found a growing number of people need help in the court system.

Valdez, who serves as a member of the Kansas Supreme Court’s Pro Se Committee, said public education through town meetings and allowing limited scope assistance from attorneys may help.

“The pro se litigant issue isn’t going to go away,” Valdez said. “You’ll always have people who can’t afford lawyers. Going into it, you want to make sure they have enough knowledge.”

However, the way advocated by Stossell and Price is also not a viable solution. At the very least the government ought to require disclosure of creditials to consumers in a clear, prominent way. However, the public would be best served if there were standards in place that has to be met before someone is allowed to call themselves a paralegal. Mr. Stossel, David Price is not a paralegal.

 All that being said, the legal community must give much more thought to utilization of people who meet that standard to solve access to justice problems, including the possibility of allowing well qualified and regulated professionals to perform some basic legal services without the supervision of an attorney.  It should be noted here that our conception of paralegal varies significantly from the conception of paralegals in many, many other countries. Vivek Mairu, in a well crafted essay appearing in THE YALE JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW [Vol. 31: 427] proposes a full definition, but starts with a statement that does appear to catch that conception, “In bare terms, paralegals who provide justice services are laypeople with basic training in law and formal government who assist poor and otherwise disempowered communities to remedy breaches of fundamental rights and freedoms.”

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