Justices consider legal aid proposal
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Small businesses that provide legal documents for do-it-yourself court filings would be forced to close under a proposal before the Hawaii Supreme Court.
The Hawaii State Bar Association has asked the court to clarify a law that covers unauthorized practice by nonlawyers.
"This basically shuts me down," objects Betty Marais, whose business, Legal-Ez, attracts about 20 to 30 customers a month.
Other critics say the proposed new definition would crimp the livelihoods of Realtors, accountants, architects, title insurance companies and sports agents and the activities of public interest groups.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Betty Marais of Legal-Ez helps individuals with legal forms but could be forced to shut down her business if the Hawaii Supreme Court amends its rules to ban nonlawyers from offering legal advice to customers.
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Betty Marais has struggled to maintain her business that helps clients fill out legal civil documents at rates far below those of lawyers.
She runs Legal-Ez with the help of a part-time worker and says she has about 20 to 30 customers a month.
But Marais now faces a threat that could end the business she opened about a year and a half ago.
The Hawaii Supreme Court is considering a proposal by the Hawaii State Bar Association that amends high court rules to spell out the prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law.
The proposal is aimed at clarifying a state law that makes the unauthorized practice by nonlawyers a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
The public has until Friday to submit comments.
Marais, who is not an lawyer, said the proposal goes too far by prohibiting a nonlawyer from "selecting, drafting or completing documents that affect the legal rights of another person."
"This basically shuts me down," she said.
Marais is not alone in her criticism of the proposal. Nearly 40 others submitted comments as of last week that criticize the proposal as overly broad.
Most focused on the provision relating to documents, but others pointed to proposed prohibitions against "performing legal research" or "giving advice or counsel to another person about the person's legal rights and obligations or the legal rights and obligations of others."
Lawyer Benjamin Lowenthal wrote that the definition of unauthorized practice will be "one of the most expansive" in the country and will go beyond the model definition drafted by the American Bar Association.
Among the critics are insurance companies, accountants and others who complain they would be hampered in their work and that their cost of business would increase.
John Schapperle, president of the Hawaii Insurers Council, wrote that the proposal would prohibit "many activities of property and casualty insurers" now done by nonlawyers. He said the sale of car insurance policies requires giving advice to the insured about their rights and obligations and types of coverage.
The processing of the application and issuing of the policies -- which would fall under "selecting, drafting or completing documents" -- are handled by nonlawyers. He said requiring an attorney would increase costs, which "would be passed on to the policyholders."
Unauthorized Practice of Law
The Hawaii Supreme Court is seeking public comment on a proposal by the Hawaii State Bar Association to amend the high court rules to prohibit the unauthorized practice of law. The proposal would ban nonlawyers from engaging in "selecting, drafting, or completing documents that affect the rights of others." It also contains other provisions.
Comments may be submitted by mail to 417 S. King St., Honolulu, HI 96813; by fax to 539-4801; or by an online form at the state Judiciary Web site, www.courts.state.hi.us.
Deadline for comments is Friday.
The Supreme Court would then review the comments. Its options include rejecting the proposal, adopting it or adopting a modified version.
If the Supreme Court adopts the proposal, it would take effect July 1.
For a text of the proposal, go to www.courts.state.hi.us.
Cheryl Yuen, president of the Hawaii Paralegal Association, wrote that the proposal would crimp the livelihoods of Realtors, accountants, architects, title insurance companies, sports agents and others. In addition, it would outlaw "public interest" activities by organizations such as Alternatives to Violence, Family Voices of Hawaii and Women Helping Women, she said.
A Schofield Barracks soldier deployed to Iraq wrote that he cannot afford a lawyer, but just wants a Family Court judge to sign his divorce documents instead of waiting 14 to 15 months before he returns to Hawaii.
"Please don't hurt the business that is handling my paperwork," Justin Nowakowski said.
Others suggested the motive for the proposal is to protect a monopoly on legal services by Hawaii's more than 4,600 lawyers licensed to practice law.
"Don't they make enough?" Evelyne Messeer of Honolulu asked. "Sounds like pure greed to me."
Jeffrey Sia, who took over as bar president on Jan. 1, said the motive is not greed, but the protection of the public, who might get flawed legal advice and end up with their rights in jeopardy or having to pay more to hire a lawyer to fix the problem.
"You want to have a form of quality control, if you will," he said.
Although the bar association is helping with a current initiative to provide more access to the legal system, Sia said he does not see the proposal as contradicting the campaign. At a November conference by the Hawaii Justice Foundation, it was estimated that only one in five low- and moderate-income residents had their civil legal needs met.
Sia said if the public obtains legal services, the bar wants to ensure that "what they are getting is reasonable and competent."
Marais said she does not give legal advice and refers customers to a lawyer if a legal issue arises.
Marais, 48, worked as a paralegal and legal secretary for 25 years and was later the office manager for We the People, a company that opened a franchise here that did work similar to what she does now. She opened her own business in June 2006 after We the People shut down here.
At her office on the sixth floor of a South King Street high-rise near Keeaumoku Street, Marais asks customers to fill out forms related to their legal needs. She then prepares the documents based on what they tell her and files the papers.
"I don't tell them what to file," she said. "They have to tell me what they want."
Marais prepares documents for divorces, living trusts, wills and incorporation of businesses. She charges $349 plus $175 filing costs for a divorce that does not involve children.
Although attorney fees vary, Honolulu lawyers are known to charge $1,000 or more for similar cases.