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January 09, 2024 Legal Delivery

Paralegals' suit claims First Amendment right to offer legal advice on court forms

By Debra Cassens Weiss

Two paralegals and the North Carolina Justice for All Project say in a federal lawsuit they have a First Amendment right to give some kinds of legal advice.

The project and two of its paralegals, Morag Black Polaski and Shawana Almendarez, are represented by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, in a Jan. 4 suit.

Law360 and Courthouse News Service have coverage of the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The suit claims that North Carolina’s ban on unauthorized practice of law is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs’ pure legal advice on filling out court-created legal forms for common legal issues.

The North Carolina Justice for All Project, an advocacy group committed to enhancing access to justice in North Carolina, wants to provide legal advice on forms for free at its clinics, while Polaski and Almendarez want to offer similar advice for a low fee.

The group has lobbied the for laws that grant paralegals limited practice rights, but the state legislature has not acted.

The Institute for Justice is also litigating a similar case on behalf of New York nonprofit Upsolve, which trains nonlawyers to provide legal advice to debt collection defendants.

Senior U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty of the Southern District of New York ruled in May 2022 that the Upsolve program is likely protected by the First Amendment and granted an injunction allowing it to operate.