Opinion of the Attorney General of the State of Maryland Opinion No. 95-056 (December 19, 1995) Concerning Whether Law Advocates Who Provide Services to Victims of Domestic Violence Engage in the Unauthorized Practice of Law

The Office of the Attorney General of the State of Maryland recently released an opinion defining what constitutes "legal information" and "legal advice." The opinion was rendered in the context of domestic violence where lay advocates assist battered women to represent themselves in court, but provides guidelines for how The People's Law Library can be used by lay advocates to assist the general public to gain access to the legal system. The opinion provides guidance on how a non-lawyer can assist a member of the public to represent themselves as a "pro se" litigant. The opinion concluded that:

1. A lay advocate may:

  • provide victims with basic information about the the existence of legal right and remedies;

  • provide victims with basic information about the manner in which judicial proceedings are conducted;

  • assist a victim to prepare a legal leading or other legal document on her own behalf by defining unfamiliar terms on a form, explaining where on a form the victim is to provide certain information, and if necessary transcribing or otherwise recording the victim's own words verbatim.

  • sit with a victim at trial table, if permitted by the court; and

  • engage in the general advocacy of the rights of battered women as a group.

2. Except under the supervision of an attorney, a lay advocate may not:

  • provide any advice relating to a victim's right or remedies, including whether a victim's particular circumstances suggest that she should pursue a particular remedy;

  • provide information about the legal aspects of judicial proceedings, such as how to present a case, call witnesses, introduce evidence, and the like;

  • use the advocate's own language in preparing or filling out form pleadings or other legal documents; or

  • engage in advocacy before any governmental representative on behalf of an individual action.

The Opinion also states that: "the simple act of providing information about legal rights, as opposed to offering advice about such rights and what to do about them, is not unauthorized. In deciding that a social worker may inform a birth parent about his or her statutory right to revoke consent to adoption, we stated that the "mere conveying of information about a provision of law" does not constitute the practice of law. 79 Opinions of the Attorney General ___(1994) [Opinion No. 94-14 (March 7, 1994)]. "Observing that a rule to the contrary would grind commerce and government to a halt, we said that "the line of unauthorized practice is potentially crossed when someone who is not a lawyer purports to give professional advice about another person's legal situation or suggests a course of conduct based on an interpretation of the law, [but] the line is not crossed by the unadorned provision of information." Opinion No. 94-014, at 3." Opinion No. 95-056 at 4.

The Opinion also states that: " the typing or other transcription of a victim's own words constitutes a 'purely mechanical function' permitted by BOP 10-206. See also Brammer v. Taylor, 338 S.E.2d 207, 212 (W.Va. 1985) (merely typing a legal instrument drafted by another person, or merely reducing words of another person to writing, does not constitute the unauthorized preparation of a legal instrument).