(SACRAMENTO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today warned California consumers to be wary of individuals and companies who advertise themselves as 'Legal Aid' or 'Legal Services' when, in fact, they are not affiliated with legitimate non-profit legal aid services.
"The true non-profit legal services organizations in California provide indispensable free legal assistance to consumers who can't afford to hire an attorney but need help while facing dangerous domestic violence situations, evictions from their homes and other emergencies,' Lockyer said. 'Consumers must be wary of deceptive, for-profit companies that purport to offer services from quality, non-profit legal services organizations but instead may provide shoddy advice that can actually hurt consumers and interfere with their legal rights.'
The warning, one in an ongoing series of consumer alerts issued by the Attorney General, was prompted in part by incidents in which consumers were duped into buying 'legal' services from companies and individuals who pose as attorneys with bonafide legal aid organizations. In one case, several Shasta County plaintiffs testified that ads in the Yellow Pages and on the Internet led them to believe the non-lawyer they hired was associated with the local non-profit legal aid office. A jury in 2000 found the defendant, Walter Moore of Modesto, guilty of violating consumer protection laws, practicing law without a license and 'acting with fraud, malice or oppression.' The case is on appeal and the Attorney General's Office has filed a 'friend of the court' brief in support of the plaintiffs.
Consumers needing legal assistance or help in preparing legal documents should make sure that they are contacting a legitimate legal services organization.
Under California law, non-lawyers may only make published legal documents available to consumers, type legal documents at the direction of consumers and provide pre-prepared published information that is written or approved by an attorney. They may not represent consumers in court, give legal advice, select or recommend the filing of particular legal forms or offer advice about how to fill them out.
State law also requires individuals who prepare legal documents for divorce, eviction defense, bankruptcy or other legal matters to register and post a $25,000 bond with the County Clerk's office in each county in which they do business. To verify that an individual has complied, consumers should contact their local County Clerk's Office. Immigration document preparers, commonly referred to as immigration 'consultants,' must be registered and post a $50,000 bond with the California Secretary of State. To confirm an individual has met those requirements, consumers should contact the Secretary of State at (916) 653-3984, or visit the website at http://www.ss.ca.gov/business/sf/bond_search.htm.
In addition, document preparers are required to provide consumers with a written agreement. Before paying any fees, obtain the agreement and make sure that it is signed by the document preparer, lists the services that will be provided and states the fee that will be charged.
When seeking legal services from companies that appear to be affiliated with non-profit legal services organizations, Lockyer offers these additional tips to consumers:
* Be wary when asked to pay fees before meeting with a paralegal or attorney in person. Although non-profit legal aid organizations often charge minimal fees for court filings, service of legal documents, self-help legal classes and other similar costs, they do not charge for attorney time or representation. They also enter into written 'retainer' agreements before requesting the payment of any fees.
* Inquire whether the business employs attorneys. All legitimate legal aid organizations have licensed attorneys on staff. To verify that an attorney is licensed to practice in California, consumers should call the California State Bar Association at (800) 843-9053, or visit the Bar's website at http://www.calsb.org/
* Ensure that the business is a non-profit. Most legal aid organizations are funded in part by the federal government. To find a non-profit legal aid office in your area, check the Legal Services Corporation's website at http://www.lsc.gov/fundprog.htm
Consumers who feel they have been victimized by a non-attorney document preparer or legal services provider should report it to their local district attorney or call the Attorney General's Public Inquiry Unit at (800) 952-5225. Consumer complaints also may be filed online at the Attorney General's website at http://www.ag.ca.gov/consumers.