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Limits on Non-Lawyer Help in Court Cases

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This article explains the authorized practice of law, who can help pro se litigants in court and preparing for court, and the roles of the different court agents.

As a pro se litigant, you may run into a number of non-lawyers in the civil justice system. Learn more about who can help you when preparing for a case. Read about where and how non-lawyers can help you with your case, and when their assistance might become the “unauthorized practice of law.” Find out about the many different roles of the court staff and other non-lawyer staff.

What is the unauthorized practice of law?

The unauthorized practice of law is when a person who is not a licensed attorney in Texas provides legal advice or representation. The unauthorized practice of law for non-lawyers is unlawful subject to limited exceptions. 

What acts are considered the "practice of law"

In Texas, the practice of law is defined as: 

  • The preparation of a pleading or other document incident to an action or special proceeding or the management of the action or proceeding on behalf of a client before a judge in a court. 

  • A service rendered out of court, including the giving of advice or the rendering of any service requiring the use of legal skill or knowledge. 

Texas Government Code 81.101

What acts are NOT considered the "practice of law"?

Under Texas Government Code 81.101(c), the “practice of law” does not include: the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an internet web site, or written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. 

How can the court staff assist me with my case?

The court staff is responsible for overseeing the judicial process and cannot offer legal advice to either party. The court staff offers assistance for the technical and procedural side of the court process. 

The Judge is an arbiter of facts and law for the resolution of disputes and a highly visible symbol of government under the rule of law. Judges are impartial to the parties and hold the adjudicative, administrative, and disciplinary responsibilities over the court. Judges shall not initiate, permit, or consider ex parte communications or other communications made to the judge outside the presence of the parties between the judge and a party, an attorney, a guardian or attorney ad litem, an alternative dispute resolution neutral, or any other court appointee concerning the merits of a pending or impending judicial proceeding. Texas Code of Judicial Conduct 3(B)(8). There are few exceptions to ex parte communications rule, such as: 

  • When communications concern uncontested administrative or procedural matters; 

  • Conferring separately with the parties in an effort to mediate or settle, provided that the judge shall first give notice to all parties; 

  • Obtaining the advice of a disinterested expert on the law applicable to a proceeding before a judge if the judge gives notice to the parties of the person consulted and the substance of the advice, and affords the parties reasonable opportunity to respond;  

  • Consulting with other judges or with court personnel; 

  • Considering an ex parte communication that is expressly authorized by law. 

The court clerk is tasked with the custody and maintenance of records relating to or lawfully deposited in the clerk’s office. The court clerk has many supervisory duties including:  

  • Recording the acts and proceedings of the court; 

  • Entering judgements of the court under the direction of the judge; 

  • Recording all executions issued and the returns on the executions; 

  • Keeping an index of the parties of all suits filed in the court, including a cross-reference to the other parties to the suit; 

  • Taking depositions of witnesses; and 

  • Accepting applications for protective orders under Chapter 71 of the Texas Family Code. 

Texas Government Code 51.303

Court clerks cannot provide you with legal assistance. Generally, your interactions with the court clerk should involve the input of data and legal documents as well as the coordination for service of process on the other party. 

The court coordinator is established by the judge to improve justice and expedite the processing of cases through the courts. Court coordinators cannot provide you with legal assistance, but they are often happy to assist you with matters of scheduling and procedure. Often times, your communication with the court coordinator will be surrounding the trial docket and matters related to the scheduling of trial. Texas Government Code 74.101(b).  

The court reporter is appointed by the judge and is a sworn officer of the state. On request, a court reporter can take note of and record oral testimony, closing arguments, and any related objections as well as judicial comments and decision on those objections. Texas Government Code 52.041, 52.046. A court reporter cannot provide you with legal assistance, however you are able to request the transcript as reported by the court reporter. 

Can I secure a court-appointed attorney or non-lawyer for legal assistance?

Although you are not entitled to a lawyer in civil cases, there are certain civil matters that allow for the court appointment of amicus or ad litem attorneys who can provide limited legal assistance throughout the case.

Amicus attorneys are attorneys appointed by the court in a suit, other than a suit filed by a government entity, whose role is to provide legal services necessary to assist the court in protecting a child’s best interests rather than to provide legal services to the child. Note that an amicus attorney is not appointed to represent either you or your child, rather the amicus attorney is an agent of the court representing only the child’s best interest.  

Attorneys ad litem are attorneys who provide legal services to a person, including a child, and who owes to the person the duties of undivided loyalty, confidentiality, and competent representation. Attorneys ad litem are most commonly appointed by the court in cases that involve the parent-child relationship, matters of wills and estates, and mental health proceedings.  

If a suit is filed seeking the termination of the parent-child relationship, or the appointment of a conservator for a child, the court shall appoint an attorney ad litem to represent the interests of an indigent parent who opposes the termination or appointment. In these cases, attorneys ad litem can provide you with legal services as your appointed representative. 

Guardians ad litem are similar to an attorney ad litem, but are not required to be a licensed attorney. A guardian ad litem can be a volunteer advocate, a professional who is not an attorney, a competently trained adult, or attorney ad litem whose skills are determined by the court to properly represent the best interest of the child. 

Guardians ad litem are entitled to notice of pleadings and hearings in their case, however, they may not provide legal services unless they are licensed to practice law in the state and are appointed in a “dual role” as both guardian and attorney ad litem. 

Court appointed special advocates (CASAs) are similar guardians ad litem in the sense that their appointment is intended to advance the child’s best interest. The terms are often used interchangeably. Court appointed special advocates are often the “boots on the ground” advocate for the child in a child welfare case. The CASA will engage with the child, their parents, and other close friends and family to help determine what is important to the child’s best interest.  Court appointed special advocates, much like guardians ad litem, generally cannot give you legal advice. 

To learn more about the roles of court appointed legal assistants, review Texas Family Code 107; Texas Family Code 203. See also our articles Attorneys Ad Litem and Amicus Attorneys in Family Law Cases and The Right to a Lawyer in Family Law Cases.  

What are the roles of other non-lawyers in the court?

Crime victims advocates and domestic violence advocates are often provided through advocacy agencies. These advocates are sometimes licensed attorneys who can help you strategize your options in the event of crime or domestic violence against you. Most times, crime victim and domestic violence advocates are non-lawyers who are trained to assist you in safety planning, accompany you to the courts, and provide you with information for compensation, protection, and financial assistance throughout your case. Unless an advocate is licensed to practice law in Texas, and has communicated to you their intent to represent you in your case, you should not look to these advocates for legal advice or legal assistance. 

Social workers, much like other special advocates, are trained to assist families, crime victims, and other parties through their non-legal needs in the case. Social workers often obtain information on the client’s medical record, provide resources for counseling, and conduct interviews to provide an expert opinion on the issue at stake. Social workers cannot provide you with legal assistance or advice. 

Who else might assist me in the process?

A notary public is an officer of the State of Texas with statewide jurisdiction, who is appointed by the Secretary of State. Notary publics are authorized to take acknowledgments or proofs of written instruments, administer oaths, take depositions, and certify copies of documents not recordable in the public records. Texas Government Code 406.016. A notary public who is not licensed to practice law in Texas may not give legal advice or accept legal fees. It is an offense for a notary public to wrongfully state or imply that they are licensed to practice law in Texas. Texas Government Code 406.017. 

Beware of Notarios. Despite the similarity in title, notarios are not notary publics. Notario fraud exploits a difference in the U.S. legal system and many Latin American legal systems. In many Latin American legal systems, a notario public is a type of lawyer that is equipped to not only verify the information in a legal document, but to also draft legal documents in conformance with the law. It is important to note that notaries are limited in the fees they can charge, often under a $6 maximum. Texas Government Code 406.024. Notarios are often found to have charged clients fees in the excess of thousands of dollars.  

Paralegals are legal assistants, qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed by a lawyer, law office, or other entity to perform substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. A paralegal is an agent of the attorney, if you are not represented by the paralegal’s attorney, that paralegal may be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. 

 Paralegals are prohibited from: 

  • Engaging in the unauthorized practice of law 

  • Providing legal advice;  

  • Signing pleadings; 

  • Negotiating settlement agreements; 

  • Soliciting legal business on behalf of an attorney; 

  • Setting a legal fee; 

  • Accepting a case; or 

  • Advertising or contracting with members of the general public for the performance of legal functions. 

Family members who are non-lawyers may be able to assist you with your case, but cannot engage in the unauthorized practice of law. This means that, if you or someone else you know has the inability to read or write legal documents in a pro se capacity, a family member may be able to assist with the drafting of legal documents so long as the family member is not deciding what, or how to draft the other family member’s wishes. Be careful of the line between assistance and the unauthorized practice of law, and, if you are ever unsure, find a lawyer and consult with them on your proposed actions. 

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