The whole point of free speech is not to make ideas exempt from criticism but to expose them to it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Citizen advocate's voice stifled by legal maneuver

For at least 20 years, Hazel Bonner, now 65, has endeavored to provide people (mostly poor) with aid when they get crosswise with law enforcement. I know of several cases where she obtained something closer to justice for accused people than did the licensed lawyers assigned them by the courts.

She was tried in a civil action Friday, the So. Dak. State Bar having complained to the court about her activities in providing help to accused people. I am being careful about my language because to "advise" a person what to do in regards to an action in court is a dangerous thing to do if you do not have a license to practice law.

Bonner has a law degree. The only thing that separates her from lawyers is that she has not taken the bar exam, a necessary step to becoming a member of the State Bar, which is necessary to "practice law."

In my experience, Hazel has always told the people she helps, "I am not a lawyer. I do not give legal advice. This is what I would do if I were in your shoes right now." She often then shows them a legal form, the type used to document the progress of cases and to present requests to the court. Sometimes she interviews them and fills in blanks based on their answers. Sometimes she lets them use her computer and fill in the blanks themselves.

The issue in her case is, "When does using your own knowledge to help others become 'practicing law'?" I have represented myself in court. That's legal. I have told many people what I would do if I were in their shoes with regard to a legal situation. No one has accused me of practicing law without a license (maybe that's next).

Bonner was tried in civil court Friday (June 26), in a neat little move that allows the prosecution to present evidence but no corroborating testimony, and with no way for Hazel to examine the complainants. She was compelled to testify against herself. There was no jury. At the end of the day, Judge Anderson--from Pierre, all the local judges recused themselves--ordered her to not visit jail inmates who have attorneys already, and to cease "preparing legal documents or doing legal research unless she is supervised by a licensed attorney." (quotes from Rapid City Journal story)

I believe she would have been acquitted had she been tried in criminal court in front of a jury.

A violation of the court order, as defined by the court, could result in her being jailed without trial for contempt--again with no jury of her peers.

It's a dicey question. When does talking to a person about what to do next become "legal advice?" Chances are, most of us violate the law regularly. Hazel says many lawyers "practice license without law," meaning they go through the motions without really advocating on behalf of their clients. I've certainly seen evidence of that.

Below are three links to Rapid City Journal stories by Mary Garrigan, on June 24, 25, and 26, that cover the basic facts of her case. The photo of Hazel above (by Ryan Soderlin) was taken from the RCJ website.

"Grandma Hazel" relishes role as advocate
Rapid City activist takes on State Bar in court
Judge puts brakes on Bonner

This is one way the lawyers' club keeps a cap on its monopoly of control over one of the most important areas of our lives.


Bill Fleming said...

I hope she will just keep doing what she has been doing. After all, she's a grandmother.

They're supposed to give advice.

It's a law of nature.

Besides, the prosecutors should remember, Gandhi was a lawyer too.

Anonymous said...

I was always under the impression that you needed a law license to receive payment for legal advise or assistance.
I did not know that you could not give a friend an opinion at no charge without being a "certified' lawyer.
I think a civil harassment suit should be brought against he South Dakota Bar. She would probably have to do it Pro Se.

Bob Newland said...

p3, there are many legal ways to give "legal advice." The State Bar's complaint here is BS to me, but when you have all the guns and the black robes, "legal" is what the guns and robes say it is.