Legal Information vs. Legal AdviceGuidelines and Instructions for Clerks and Court PersonnelWho Work with Self-Represented Litigantsin Texas State CourtsEdited for use in Texas by:Texas Office of Court AdministrationTexas Access to Justice CommissionTexas Access to Justice FoundationTexas Legal Services CenterJune 2010
Table of ContentsSectionIntroductionPage2Roles and Responsibilities of Clerks and Court Personnel3-4Why Clerks and Court Personnel Must Not Give Legal Advice, But Should ProvideLegal Information5-6What is Legal Advice?7-8What is Ex Parte Communication?Quality Service: Strategies for Answering Difficult Questions910-11Procedural Explanations vs. Procedural Recommendations12General Information about Court Operations vs. Confidential orRestricted Information about Court Operations13Explaining Legal Terms vs. Providing Legal Interpretations14Providing Forms and Approved Instructions vs. Filling Out Forms15Public Case Information vs. Confidential Case Information16Options vs. Opinions17Citing Statutes, Court Rules and Ordinances vs. Researching Statutes, Court Rulesand Ordinances18General Referrals vs. Subjective or Biased Referrals19Permissible vs. Impermissible Forms of Ex Parte Communication20AppendicesHandout/Sign: What Clerks and Court Personnel Can and Cannot DoResources and Referral Information2122-24Page 1
IntroductionEach year thousands of people represent themselves in Texas courts. It is crucial that clerks andcourt personnel understand how to help the self-represented without giving legal advice. Thismanual will help explain the difference between legal information and legal advice.You are the face and voice of justice in Texas. How you respond to questions about the courtsystem affects how people feel about justice, as well as their access to justice. If someone doesnot understand how to use the court system, and you do not provide available and neededinformation, that person may be denied access to the courts and to justice.This manual is specifically intended for the use of clerks and court personnel who providetelephone and counter assistance. It is recommended that you keep the manual in a placewhere it is easily accessible. Of course, it cannot anticipate all the possible questions that selfrepresented parties might ask. If you are unsure if your response to a question wouldconstitute giving legal advice, refer to this manual. You can also check with your supervisor.The manual also contains a one-page list of some things clerks and court personnel can andcannot do (see page 21). This list is designed to be used as a handout or a sign posted at theclerk’s counter or public window so that people can read and understand the guidelines thatyou are required to follow.The law is complicated and confusing. Encourage people to talk to a lawyer about theirsituation. The Resources and Referral Information section of this manual describes a variety ofways people can get help.Page 2
Roles and Responsibilities of Clerks and Court PersonnelPROVIDE ACCESS TO THE COURTSo One of the basic principles of the American justice system is that the doors of ourcourthouses are open to everyone.o Most members of the public, however, are not familiar with courts or courtprocedures and require some level of assistance.o Access to justice is, in effect, denied if members of the public do not know how touse the court system, and the courts do not assist them in some meaningful way.o The court is obligated to explain court processes and procedures, to provide qualityservice, and to provide accurate information to all members of the public.o An understanding of what information can be provided to the public willsignificantly affect access to the courts and the administration of justice.PROVIDE SERVICE WITH ACCURATE INFORMATIONo Accessibility to the judicial system is affected by the accuracy of informationprovided by the court to members of the public, along with the manner in which it ispresented.o Clerks and court personnel are responsible for giving court users the service theyneed and deserve by providing accurate information in a competent, cooperative,and timely manner.o The public’s first and only contact with the judicial system may be with clerks andcourt personnel, whose responses have an impact on how people view their courtexperience.o The court should treat all court users fairly and equally: attorneys, defendants, selfrepresented litigants, and others. In other words, clerks and court personnel shouldfeel comfortable providing the same information to self-represented litigants thatthey provide on a routine basis to attorneys. All members of the public are entitledto the same information. Providing information to a lawyer that would not beprovided to a self-represented litigant is not equal. Similarly, providing informationto a self-represented litigant that would not be provided to a lawyer is not equal.Page 3
o Clerks and court staff should learn the rules about ex parte (one-sided)communication with the judge, and should not let members of the public use themto circumvent that principle.o Effective service may reduce the number of times court users must come to thecourthouse, and thus reduce stress on the court system.o Provide accurate information because even seemingly small mistakes can affectpeople’s lives or the outcome of court cases. It is better to be honest and say AIdon’t know@ than to give incorrect information.Page 4
Why Clerks and Court Personnel Must Not Give Legal Advice,But Should Provide Legal InformationCLERKS AND COURT PERSONNEL MUST REMAIN NEUTRALo Remain neutral and do not promote or recommend a particular course of action tocourt users.o Although you may have processed many similar types of cases, you do not know what isin a court user’s best interest. Only they or their attorneys can make thatdetermination.CLERKS AND COURT PERSONNEL MUST REMAIN IMPARTIALo Impartiality is similar to neutrality, but focuses on equal treatment of court users.o Court knowledge must be shared fairly and equally.o Never give advice or information that favors one side or the other.o Do not disclose confidential information or become involved in or facilitate an ex partecommunication.CLERKS AND COURT PERSONNEL MUST NOT ENGAGE IN THE UNAUTHORIZED PRACTICE OF LAWo Only attorneys licensed to practice by the Supreme Court may give legal advice.o Do not engage in the unauthorized practice of law by providing legal advice.o Even court personnel who themselves are licensed attorneys may not give legal adviceto court users because doing so would violate the principles of neutrality andimpartiality.The unauthorized practice of law statute, Section 81.101 of the Texas Government Code,states:(a) In this chapter the “practice of law” means the preparation of a pleading or otherdocument incident to an action or special proceeding or the management of theaction or proceeding on behalf of a client before a judge in court as well as a servicerendered out of court, including the giving of advice or the rendering of any servicerequiring the use of legal skill or knowledge, such as preparing a will, contract, orPage 5
other instrument, the legal effect of which under the facts and conclusions involvedmust be carefully determined.(b) The definition in this section is not exclusive and does not deprive the judicialbranch of the power and authority under both this chapter and the adjudicatedcases to determine whether other services and acts not enumerated may constitutethe practice of law.(c) In this chapter, the “practice of law” does not include the design, creation,publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet web site, ofwritten materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if theproducts clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute forthe advice of an attorney. This subsection does not authorize the use of theproducts or similar media in violation of Chapter 83 and does not affect theapplicability or enforceability of that chapter.The above statute does not provide an exhaustive list of what constitutes the practice of law.The Supreme Court of Texas has held that the courts ultimately decide what is and is not thepractice of law.Page 6
What is Legal Advice?Court users are asking for legal advice when they ask whether or not they should proceed in acertain fashion. Telling a member of the public what to do rather than how to do it may begiving legal advice.Legal advice is a written or oral statement that:o Interprets some aspect of the law, court rules, or court procedures;o Recommends a specific course of conduct a person should take in an actual or potentiallegal proceeding; oro Applies the law to the individual person’s specific factual circumstances.What is Legal Information?Clerks and court personnel may:o Provide public information contained in dockets, calendars, case files, indexes, andother reports.o Recite common, routinely-employed court rules, court procedures, administrativepractices, and local rules, and explain generally how the court and judges function.o Refer self-represented litigants to a law library or the court’s website for statutes, courtrules, or forms.o Explain the meaning of terms and documents used in the court process.o Answer questions concerning deadlines or due dates (without calculating due dates).o Identify and refer self-represented litigants to court forms.Clerks and court personnel may NOT:o Recommend whether to file a certain pleading.o Recommend wording or content for a pleading.o Recommend specific people against whom to file pleadings.o Recommend specific claims or arguments to assert at trial.o Recommend what type of damages to seek or from whom to seek them.Page 7
o Recommend techniques for presenting evidence in pleadings or at trial.o Recommend which objections to raise or which motions to file.o Recommend whether a party should ask for a continuance.o Recommend whether or not parties should try to settle their dispute prior to trial.o Interpret applications of statutes.o Perform legal research for a party by researching case law, statutes, opinions, etc.o Predict the outcome of a case.Page 8
What is Ex Parte Communication?Black’s Law Dictionary defines ex parte as “on one side only; by or for one party; done for oneparty only.”Ex parte refers to situations in which only one party appears before a judge or communicateswith a judge.With few exceptions, the court rules require that all documents filed with the court must begiven to all other parties in the case so that the other parties have an opportunity to respond.Thus, it is improper to give information to the judge unless that information has been providedto the other parties in the case.If a party submits a written ex parte communication for a judge, ask the judge what the judgewould like to do with the communication. The judge will say either to send a copy to all theparties before the judge reviews it or to send it back to the individual who submitted thedocument. Check for any other local policies on this issue.If a party asks to talk to a judge, suggest that they write down what they want to say and file itwith the court. This written communication should:o Include a proper heading, including the case number.o Be dated and signed, with the name printed under signature.o Include the party’s address and telephone number over the heading.o Be copied to the opposing party or counsel following Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.The original should be submitted to the clerk and the party should keep a copy for theirrecords.If the party has an emergency situation and there is no time to submit a written request,communicate with the judge if allowed by local rules. The party should be warned that therequest may not be granted.Page 9
Quality Service:Strategies for Answering Difficult QuestionsIt may not always be clear that it is appropriate to answer a member of the public’s question.However, there are several things that can be done to assist court users and make it easier toidentify whether the question is asking for legal information or legal advice.LISTEN CLOSELY AND ASK QUESTIONSo Let members of the public ask their questions and listen carefully to what they areasking.o Be an active listener and respond reflectively. If necessary, repeat or rephrase thequestion to state what you think they are asking.o Take the time to clarify what court users need. If someone asks a question that is notclear, ask follow-up questions to clarify what they mean.o Ask court users if they have completely read any paperwork they may have.BE PATIENTo Think how much the court user will appreciate someone taking the time to answerquestions and explain an unfamiliar process.o Coming to court can be stressful, confusing, and intimidating; so take the time towelcome and greet court users.o The same questions may have been asked many times before, but remember that this isthe first time for this particular court user.o Remain calm even when the court user is not. Attitude is key. Some people may justneed to vent. Take it professionally, not personally.EXPLAIN ANSWERS and GIVE REASONSo Providing the reasons why certain information cannot be given helps minimize people’sfrustration and increases their understanding of the court system. If a question cannotbe answered, explain how important it is that clerks and court personnel remainneutral and impartial. Always be clear and concise when providing information. Askthe person how they would feel if the clerk or court personnel gave legal advice to theother side.o The phrase “I can not give legal advice” should never be used as an excuse not toprovide service. Politely state that clerks and court personnel cannot explain orinterpret the law or say how it would apply to a case because that would be giving legaladvice. Also, explain that clerks and court personnel do not have legal training and ifPage 10
the clerk tries to give information about which they are not completely informed, itmight jeopardize the outcome of the case for the party.oIf a question cannot be answered, try to give a good referral such as to a local lawyerreferral service, legal clinic, the court’s website, or TexasLawHelp,www.TexasLawHelp.org. Remember: do not recommend specific attorneys; remainneutral and impartial at all times.Page 11
Procedural Explanations vs. Procedural RecommendationsProvide procedural information and explanations on how to accomplish various actions withinthe court system. Explaining various procedures increases the public’s understanding of thecourt system and provides greater access to the courts.Do not make any recommendation that would indicate a direct advantage or disadvantage of aparticular procedure. It is not appropriate to tell court users what is the best course of actionfor them to take, nor is it appropriate to give opinions about the probable outcome of a case.CAN PROVIDEProcedural ExplanationsCANNOT PROVIDEProcedural RecommendationsQuestion:Can you tell me how to file a small claimsaction?Question:Can you tell me whether it would be better tofile a small claims action or a civil action?Response:Yes. You need to fill out a sworn smallclaims statement and file it with the clerk’soffice. When you file the affidavit, you willhave to pay a filing fee. The clerk will issueyou a case number and issue paperworkcalled the citation. Tell the clerk where theperson you are suing may be foundbecause the person must be served beforethe court can grant you any relief. Thesmall claims form is on the court’s website.ccccourt’swebsite court website.Response:I cannot tell you which process would be bestfor your situation because I cannot give youlegal advice. You may want to talk to anattorney about this issue to determine whichprocess best fits your situation. You may alsocontact other legal resource organizations inyour area, or you may conduct research at thelocal law library.Page 12
General Information about Court Operationsvs.Confidential or Restricted Information about Court OperationsAnswer questions about court policies and procedures if the information could not beinappropriately used to affect the status or outcome of a case. It is important not to discloseinformation that would allow one party or another to have an unfair advantage.As a general rule, it is appropriate to provide information on how to do something, but it is notappropriate to answer the “how” question when it involves the disclosure of confidential orrestricted information.CAN PROVIDEGeneral Information About Court OperationsQuestion:When will my divorce go to court?CANNOT PROVIDEConfidential or Restricted InformationAbout Court OperationsQuestion:Can you tell me when Judge Doe will be onvacation so I don’t have to appear in front ofhim again?Response:Response:This time frame may depend on the type ofI can’t give you personal information aboutservice in the case. Hearings are only needed the judge.on contested cases and it will depend uponthe status of the pleadings as to when it isset. There are general instructions andappropriate forms for uncontested divorceon the court’s website, or you may wish toobtain legal help if your case is going to go totrial.Page 13
Explaining Legal Termsvs.Providing Legal InterpretationsExplain legal terms so that people will have access to the court and understand the courtsystem. While it is appropriate to explain legal terms, it is not appropriate to provide legalinterpretations.CAN PROVIDELegal DefinitionCANNOT PROVIDELegal InterpretationQuestion:What does “certificate of service” mean?Question:My neighbors leave their kids at home all daywithout supervision. Isn’t that child neglect?Response:The rules require parties to file proof withthe court that they complied with therequirement to serve other parties. This iscalled “certificate of service.” The rulesrequire parties to give copies of anydocument filed with the court to all otherparties in the case. The methods for serviceavailable to Texas litigants are outlined inthe court rules and state statutes, inparticular you may wish to look at Rule 21aof the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. Therules are available on the court’s website.Response:I am not an attorney or a judge and cannotmake that legal determination. I can,however, refer you to Child ProtectiveServices who may be able to help you. If youare concerned that the children are in anykind of danger, contact law enforcement.Tip: The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure are available on Texas Courts Online home.asp.The Texas Statutes and a Self Help section are available on Texas Courts Online athttp://www.courts.state.tx.us/links.asp.Page 14
Providing Forms and Approved Instructions vs. Filling Out FormsAnother important way to facilitate access to the court is by providing forms and assistancewhere resources allow. It is important to know what forms and written instructions areavailable from the court and other agencies.Often court users will not know what forms to request in order to bring their matters beforethe court. When this happens, clerks and court personnel should direct them to availableresources for forms such as the court’s website, law libraries, and legal clinics.Answer procedural questions about how to complete court papers and forms. For example, tella court user whether a form needs to be notarized or what factual information the form isasking for, but do not say what words to put on the forms. If someone asks what to say in aform, tell the person to use his or her own words. Due to time and resource constraints,suggest that people fill out as much of their form as possible before asking for assistance.The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodation to people withdisabilities, which may include helping them fill out forms. Some legal clinics and legal serviceagencies will help people with disabilities fill out forms.When helping someone fill out forms, write down exactly what the person dictates, word forword. Do not correct the person’s grammar, and do not paraphrase or edit what the personsays. This can be considered giving legal advice, and threatens the court’s impartiality. Oncethe form is filled out, read it back to the party to confirm that what is written is correct. Writeor stamp “dictated by court user, written verbatim by court staff,” and your name or initials inthe margin, and why the assistance was necessary.CAN PROVIDEProviding Forms and Approved InstructionsCANNOT PROVIDEFilling Out FormsQuestion:I need to file for divorce and I have no ideawhere to begin. Is there some place I can goto find out how to get started?Question:The self-help divorce petition says I shouldlist as my separate property any gifts Ireceived while we were married. Myparents gave us money to make our housepayments for several months. Should I listthat money as my separate property?Response:Sure. The Texas Law Help website has formsand instructions for uncontested divorces.Go to www.TexasLawHelp.org to find a fulllist of free forms. The court charges a fee tofile your papers. This fee varies from countyto county and may depend on whetherchildren are involved.Response:I cannot help you decide what informationto enter. If you have questions about whatinformation is appropriate to enter on theforms, you can ask an attorney or visit a legalclinic. Information about legal clinics isavailable on the court’s website.Page 15
Public Case Informationvs.Confidential Case InformationSome documents or entire cases are confidential and the information cannot be disclosed. Aska supervisor what records or cases are public and what are not.Do not disclose the outcome of a matter submitted to a judge for decision until the outcome ispart of the public record or the judge directs disclosure of the matter.Do not speculate on the possible outcome of a matter submitted to a judge or a jury until theoutcome is part of the public record. This also applies in cases when a matter has not yet beensubmitted to the court.Generally, court case records are open to the public, and some records are made public by law.For example, search warrants and the affidavits that support them are public. Also, records inpaternity suits are available for public inspection.Some court case records may be sealed by the judge in civil cases under Rule 76a of the TexasRules of Civil Procedure. The access to other kinds of court case records, such as records inmental health proceedings and juvenile case records, is limited by law. There are several otherkinds of court case records that may be protected law. Be sure to check with your supervisor ifthere is a question about what records are public and what are not.If court case records are confidential or protected by law, do not read them unless necessary todo your job. These records may contain highly personal information about parties, and it isinappropriate to read them unless required for your work.CAN PROVIDEPublic Case InformationCANNOT PROVIDEConfidential Case InformationQuestion:My mother died four months ago, and I lostmy paperwork regarding her probate case.Can you give me the case number, and can Iget copies of the pertinent documents?Question:I think there is a mental health case for myuncle in your court. His name is John Smith.Can you tell me anything about his case?Response:Yes. I need to know her name. I’ll check ourrecords and give you the case number. Then,you can visit our courthouse and view thefile.Response:Mental health cases are private andtherefore I cannot provide you with anyinformation. This type of information canonly be disclosed by court order.Tip: The Office of Court Administration publishes manuals for district clerks and countyclerks. These manuals address requests for court case records and are available atwww.courts.state.tx.us/pubs/pubs-home.asp.Page 16
Optionsvs.OpinionsProvide information on the various procedural options that are available and what thedifferences are between the options. It is important to explain options because the person isoften not aware of those options. People have better access to the courts when options areexplained.It is also important to advise people of all appropriate options. Providing only some of theoptions may indirectly influence a decision by limiting the person’s choices.Do not give an opinion about what specific remedies to seek or which option the person shoulduse or otherwise advise someone on whether to bring the problem before the court. Remainneutral and do not take a position that will encourage or discourage a particular course ofaction.CAN PROVIDEOptionsCANNOT PROVIDEOpinionsQuestion:What can I do if I cannot afford to pay thefiling fee?Question:My ex-husband hasn’t paid the debts that heagreed to pay in our divorce settlement.Now he’s filed for bankruptcy. The creditorsare coming after me. This is ruining mycredit. I don’t live in Texas anymore. Whatcan I do? He had an agreement and he’s notfollowing it. Can I be made responsible forthis debt?Response:You can request an affidavit of inability topay costs form. This form allows you toopen your case without paying the fee. Theforms are available on the court’s websiteand on Texas Law Help’s website.Response:I can’t advise you what you can do because Icannot give you legal advice. The bankruptcyfiling further complicates this matter. Youmay want to consult an attorney. You cancontact a local lawyer referral service to findout if there are any free legal advice clinicsthat you could attend to get furtherinformation, or see Texas Law Help’s FindLegal Assistance web page.Page 17
Citing Statutes, Court Rules and Ordinancesvs.Researching Statutes, Court Rules and OrdinancesIt is appropriate to share known statutory and court rule citations, especially as they apply toprocedures. However, it is not appropriate to conduct legal research. There are two factorsthat help distinguish between the two:o If the information is something clerks and court personnel should know as a part oftheir job, then it is not considered legal research, even if it has to be looked up in thestatutes, rules of civil procedure or local court rules.o If the information is readily available and does not have to be compiled, then it isunlikely to be considered legal research. If the information has to be compiled, then itprobably is legal research.CAN PROVIDECites of Statutes, Court Rules andOrdinancesCANNOT PROVIDEResearch of Statutes, Court Rules andOrdinancesQuestion:Can I get a copy of a document from a case?Is it a public record?Question:What laws govern tort claims?Response:Court records and documents are publicrecord unless they have been sealed underRule 76a of the Texas Rules of CivilProcedure, or they are confidential undersome other law. The law requires that wecharge a copying fee. If the document needsto be certified, there is an additional fee andper page copy fee.Response:I cannot perform legal research for you, butyou can do that research yourself or contactan attorney to assist you. The statutes andrules are available online and at the lawlibrary. Contact the State Law Library forhelp getting started in your research.Page 18
General Referralsvs.Subjective or Biased ReferralsBecause the court, clerks, and court personnel must remain impartial in all matters, do notmake referrals to a specific lawyer, law firm, or paralegal service. Instead, refer people to thecourt’s website, local lawyer referral service, the State Bar, or the yellow pages of thetelephone book.It is also helpful to keep lists of contact information for local government agencies anddepartments where people are frequently referred. Sometimes it is appropriate to make a callto the referred agency or department (if time permits) to make sure it can accommodate theperson before sending them there.CAN PROVIDEGeneral ReferralCANNOT PROVIDESubjective or Biased ReferralQuestion:I need a process server. Where do I findone?Question:Can you recommend a good process server?Response:We do not have lists of process servers atthe court. Pleadings may be served by asheriff, a constable or you can also check inthe phone book or on the internet forcertified private process servers.Response:I’m sorry, but the court must remainimpartial. I cannot recommend a specificprocess server. I suggest that you check thephone book or the internet for a certifiedprivate process server.Tip: Develop and have available a list of general resources and referrals. Good general referralsinclude the yellow pages and the Internet. A list of certified private process servers isavailable on Texas Courts OnLine atwww.courts.state.tx.us/psrb/pdf/Statewide Authorized Servers.htm.Page 19
Permissiblevs.Impermissible Forms of Ex Parte CommunicationDo not transmit information to a judge unless that information has been provided to the otherparties in the case. To uphold this principle, follow these guidelines:o Do not communicate to the judge case information acquired through personalknowledge, read in the newspaper, or heard on the radio or from someone else.o Do not transmit verbal information to a judge on behalf of a party or attorneyconcerning a case unless it involves scheduling or other administrative matters.o Screen the judge’s calls. Do not transfer phone calls to a judge from parties or attorneyswithout learning what the caller wants to talk to the judge about and whether it isassociated with a case before the judge, and then ask the judge if he/she wants to takethe call.o Communications about scheduling or other administrative matters are permittedbecause they do not deal with the litigation’s substance or merits, and no party gains anadvantage as a result of the ex parte contact.CAN PROVIDEPermissible Forms of Ex ParteCommunicationCANNOT PROVIDEImpermissible Forms of Ex ParteCommunicationQuestion:Has the judge ruled on the moti
giving legal advice. Legal advice is a written or oral statement that: o Interprets some aspect of the law, court rules, or court procedures; o Recommends a specific course of conduct a person should take in an actual or potential legal proceeding; or o Applies the law to the individual person's specific factual circumstances. What is Legal .
advice strategically is likely to be a different experi-ence for the advice seeker than seeking advice with the intention of using it, from the advisor’s perspec-tive, strategic advice seeking may elicit the same per-ceptual effects as authentic advice seeking because the advice seeker’s intentions (and her reliance on advice)
If asking for legal advice, say so, and start new email chain If giving legal advice, say so Involve lawyers (before litigation contemplated) Maintain confidentiality of legal advice documents Limit dissemination of legal advice (need to know; original only) Make internal communications re legal advice factual
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