Most people who navigate through our legal system, and who must educate themselves about our laws, opt to use a lawyer in the hope that the lawyer, through his skill and knowledge, will give them both a friend in Court and an advantage over their adversary. In other words, in our judicial system, lawyers are meant to assist. They are not a necessity, nor is there any law requiring people to rely on lawyers. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Corporations, which are not people (an obvious point but one that matters at law), cannot appear in any court but small claims without a lawyer acting on their behalf. Also, if adults are incapacitated, courts will appoint lawyers to protect them.
Children occupy an interesting little legal enclave. If a child's legal interests appear to be contrary to his parents' interests or desires, the Court may appoint a lawyer to ensure that the child's needs are not made subordinate to the parents' demands. Normally, however, children cannot appear in a case on their own behalf. Instead, they can appear only through their parents. That is, the suit will be filed by John Doe, as parent and guardian of John Doe, Jr.
In Ohio, parents of a minor autistic child filed a case on his behalf against the school district. They elected to appear in propriate persona — that is, without a lawyer. They were successful. Their success apparently has the Cleveland Bar Association very worried. How else to explain the fact that the Bar is threatening to fine the parents for their successful court appearance:
The Cleveland Bar Association is threatening to fine the parents of an autistic boy $10,000 for not hiring a lawyer when they brought, and largely won, a court case on their son's behalf four years ago.
After a long court battle, Brian and Susan Woods settled their case with the Akron school district in 2002 when the district agreed to send Daniel, now 11, to a private school.
But in February, the Cleveland Bar Association took issue with the Woodses' handling parts of that case themselves and not through a lawyer.
The bar charged them with unauthorized practice of law and threatened a $10,000 fine, saying that although the Woodses were allowed to represent themselves, they could not act as lawyers for their son. The charge is normally filed against nonlawyers who provide legal services for pay, but is rare against parents.
Representatives of several advocacy groups – plus the National School Boards Association, the American Bar Association and the Ohio bar's Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law – could not recall any cases of parents being charged with this misdemeanor offense.
Although the Ohio Supreme Court hasn't yet decided the matter, it already shows some signs of good sense:
Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the case, ordered the bar to present evidence on why the case should not be dismissed, saying it appeared that "Woods has not engaged in the unauthorized practice of law."
What's really lovely is the Bar's justification for bringing this claim against parents who successfully defended their child's legal rights:
Michael Harvey, the Rocky River lawyer handling the charges for the bar association, said the goal is to protect the rights of children. Harvey said special education laws are so complex that children need experts, not untrained parents, looking out for their rights.
Call me a cynic, but I doubt the Bar's stated good intentions. This whole thing has the smell of a monopoly that is trying to use gross bullying tactics to maintain its control over the market. No wonder some people think lawyers are bottom feeders. And no wonder that my natural inclination from the time I left law school has always been corporate defense work.
Hat tip: From the Word Go