California’s Legal Document Assistant Problem (I can’t give you legal advice, but….)

Forms picture blogpost on LDA

Many times, clients come to our office and we get to “clean up messes.”  In some of these cases–the damages already done to the client’s legal position are irreparable.  For many of these parties it would have also been cheaper to have an attorney from the start–instead of trying to fix the harm done while unrepresented.  Many of these parties used Legal Document Assistants to start their case.

What we do:

It’s not that every family law case in California demands an attorney (yes, I just said that).  I frequently instruct potential clients during their free initial consultation that they really could do this on their own if they want, I give them some free advice, I print them out a few forms, and I send them on their way.

Forms are free:

The thing is that much of family law work is done on forms which are provided by the state.  Many of the forms also have corresponding “INFO” pages that explain how to use them and how to fill them out.  These forms are published by the California Judicial Council and freely available online.  You, as a taxpayer, are paying the State of California to develop and maintain these forms.  They are free.

California Superior Court Self-Help Centers:

Every California State Superior Court has self-help centers.  At these centers you can receive these free forms and get help filling out those forms.  Unfortunately, the self-help centers don’t provide a high level of service.  You work on their schedule, they only help you with certain issues, and they can’t provide legal advice.

The California Legal Document Assistant (What they do):

California has something called “Legal Document Assistants” or LDAs.  These LDAs are able to provide forms (the forms we just discussed that are found free online, and help you fill them out, as long as they don’t give legal advice.  So, they provide you a form that is free and readily available online, they help you complete it, and they charge you for it. Under Bus. & Prof. Code § 6400 (the relevant portions of which are at the bottom of this post) states that “A legal document assistant may not provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies.”  Right.  In reality, these LDAs give legal advice and explanations all the time.  They simply couch advice with language like, “I can’t give you legal advice, but…” and then they proceed to give legal advice.  There is a reason why LDAs are not allowed to give legal advice–they weren’t trained to practice law.

So, what is the LDA supposedly able to do?  They are supposed to be, “Completing legal documents in a ministerial manner.”  What the heck does that mean?  It means they are simply an “instrument” and should have “no personal discretion or judgment in its performance.”  They simply fill it out as you tell them.

So, LDAs charge you for forms (which are available for free online and at the courthouse), they also charge you for filling them out (which the self-help center does for free and you can figure out), and they can’t provide legal advice or explanations.

Beyond the Form:

Does your family law case require action beyond these California Judicial Council forms?  Maybe.  Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Do you need to make your spouse come to the hearing without a subpoena–and/or make them bring documents with them to the hearing?
  • Do you need to demand specific answers to questions?
  • Do you need to demand they complete their preliminary or final declaration of disclosure?
  • Do you need to write a points and authorities and when is one needed anyway?
  • Who can help me figure out what questions to ask at the hearing, which questions are objectionable, and what I can object to?
  • Where do I find a marital settlement agreement and what should it have in it?

Many times family law attorneys prepare documents beyond the free forms published by the California Judicial Council.  Although LDAs may have some of these forms laying around, they are not allowed to suggest them, explain them, or advise you on when to use them.  It’s not every case that requires them–but sometimes they can make a big difference in the outcome.

Free Consultation:

Your first appointment with an LDA is going to cost you.  We give free consultations and help you figure out if you need us or not.  Give us a call at (805) 482-1170.

Bus. & Prof. Code § 6400

(g) A legal document assistant may not provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies. A legal document assistant shall complete documents only in the manner prescribed by paragraph (1) of subdivision (d).

(2)(d)(1) Completing legal documents in a ministerial manner, selected by a person who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, by typing or otherwise completing the documents at the person’s specific direction.

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