Activist Fined For Playing Lawyer

The Colorado Supreme Court today upheld a $6,000 fine against Suzanne Shell in contempt of court proceedings accusing her of unauthorized practice of law.

Shell is a non-lawyer, who lives in a rural area near Colorado Springs, who feels that social services departments are routinely overzealous in going after parents in abuse and neglect proceedings.  She was found to have crossed the line of unauthorized practice of law when participated in three different lawsuits with which she had no personal connection under a power of attorney, after already having stipulated to a warning in 2001 that this was unathorized practice of law.Westword profiled this case and Shell herself, at length, in a February 2005 story.

At issue is when providing self-help resources crosses the line of state law and the First Amendment to become unauthorized practice of law and something that exploits consumers.

This issue is particularly sensitive because in abuse and neglect cases, as in criminal cases, parents have a right to a court appointed attorney.  Shell’s advocacy has been a response to her claim that these court appointed attorneys aren’t doing a good job of protecting the rights of parents accused of child abuse and neglect.

While not a lawyer, Shell’s documents were described as too “sophisticated” to have been prepared by non-lawyers purportedly representing themselves in the cases at issue.  Thus, Shell is in the awkward position of being more qualified to handle a dependency and neglect case than some parents trying to represent themselves, but is barred by law from direct involvement of the cases of people who seek help from her advocacy group.

The Colorado Supreme Court avoided many of the stickier questions presented by Shell’s larger agenda of advocacy, in a unanimous opinion written by newly appointed Justice Eid, by noting that Shell had engaged in practices like acting as a non-attorney to provide legal representation using a power of attorney, drafting documents in a particular case, and providing legal advice in a particular case when she had previously signed a stipulation with attorney regulatory officials stating that she understood to be unauthorized practice of law.

The Colorado Supreme Court addressed this point in its opinion stating (citations omitted):

It is true that some activities constituting the practice of law are difficult to disentangle from the exercise of free speech.  However, none of Shell’s actions at issue in this case presents such a difficulty.  Any impact on speech in this case “is merely the incidental effect of observing an otherwise legitimate regulation.”

Thus, the Court left unresolved the issue of when other activities of Shell’s organization, like providing general legal information, forms and advice on her website could constitute the unauthorized practice of law in Colorado, an issue that has been pursued aggresively in states such as Texas, but largely relegated to being too low a priority to use scarce resources to pursue in Colorado.

The Court also addressed procedural and jurisdictional issues in her case, but those lack the wide relevance of its First Amendment holding.