It's astonishing to consider that in this day and age, with all of our modern technology, information delivery systems, and real time communication that consumers are still struggle to access the court system. Pro se litigants struggle because they lack information even though the information is there for the taking. I googled the phrase "Florida divorce" and received over sixteen billion returns in a half second. The information is there, but it's too much to take in. When I refine the search and use "Florida divorce information", I still get over 7 billion returns in around point 4 seconds. Still way too much information. It's overwhelming. And, the information is often unreliable, contradictory, or outdated. Some of the information doesn't apply and much of the information is very general. So even after the searcher reads every single page on every single site on the first page of google he may not have learned anything he didn't already know. The same outcome applies to any other type of legal information that a consumer might search. Adoption, immigration, bankruptcy, or anything else. It's hard, it's frustrating, it's mind-boggling. Technology is a tool, but its not the answer.
People use tools. People are the answer. What if we could be the filter for all this legal information? What if document preparers could not only prepare documents but also provide consumers with the information they need and want? The good news is that we can, and most of us do everyday. Whether or not you have a formal policy to provide legal information, you probably do so. When a consumer calls, emails, or walks into your office he's probably not just window shopping. That consumer is in front of you because he has a problem. He's hoping that you can help him or fix it for him.
But, document preparers are not even allowed to select forms for a consumer. How is a pro se supposed to know what to file unless someone helps. Is he really supposed to wade through those billions of websites? Or spend days and nights at the law library? Some pro se litigants think that it's the clerk of courts' job to give them legal information and assist with procedure. Not hardly. As many of us know first hand and we know all too well from our customers, the clerks are not allowed to say much of anything. Depending on the clerk, the county, the circuit, and maybe the weather, sometimes a clerk will give a consumer some guidance. But, they usually won't or can't because they fear for their jobs. Why, because of that supposed fine line between legal information and legal advice.
But, in fact, there is no fine line. It's easy to know what's fact and what's advice. It's nonsensical to pretend that it's difficult to tell the difference. A fact is a statement that can be verified in some way. A fact is something that truly exists or happens. Advice is an opinion or recommendation offered as a guide to action or conduct. Think about this. These are very different things. Completely different ways of thinking and communicating thoughts -- so I doubt they are often actually confused. I know that when I say - You should wear your seat belt - that I'm giving advice. And when I say, Florida law requires people to wear seat belts - that's a fact.
And if I say the first step in an eviction for nonpayment of rent is to deliver a three day notice to pay or quit. That's a fact. But here is where the games begin. Every driver should know that he's supposed to wear a seat belt. You have to know it to pass the driving test, and if you don't wear your seat belt, you'll get a ticket. It's common knowledge. I've been a landlord since 1984. It's old news to me that you have to give a tenant a three day as the first step to evict.. I learned that years ago. But, there is no landlord course for beginner landlords, they don't know that fact unless someone tells them or they learn it some other way. And if they go and ask the clerk of court what to do, they might not get an answer. It all depends on how they ask. If they say my tenant won't pay the rent what should I do? The clerk of court, or even a document preparer may be reluctant to reply, because it sounds like the answer will be advice. "You should give your tenant a three day notice". Should. But if you answer, the first step in eviction is a three day notice to pay or quit, see Florida Statute Chapter 83 - that's a fact.
Its word play, semantics. And we can work with it. People ask all the time about which procedure or form to use for their desired outcome. We can't select forms for them. But if they know what they want to do but don't know the name of the form or procedure, in my opinion, it would be wrong to refuse to answer. The consumer has a problem or he wouldn't be talking to a document preparer. To say, sorry can't answer that, is acting like the clerk of court. And we CAN answer. Answer with a statement of fact not a "should" statement.
All Florida attorneys have standing to initiate a UPL investigation. Think about that one. We are not regulated by the Florida Bar. We are not attorneys. Attorneys in some aspects are our competition, yet they can report us for supposedly engaging in UPL, even though we don't have anything to do with them. A scenario where an attorney cried UPL because he was losing to a pro se litigant is nothing more than gamesmanship. An attempt to ham string his opponent by taking away the one tool he has - the document preparer. And, sadly, it works. At that juncture a prudent document preparer would sever the relationship with the pro se litigant and address the UPL investigation directly. It's a risk we take.
Every occupation has risks. Roofers, fire fighters, electricians, pilots, chauffeurs, truck drivers, farmers, trash collectors, and construction workers, are among the most dangerous occupations. Anyone working in one of these occupations could die on the job. A business risks their money and time, hoping that the returns exceed the outlay. Our business is unique because legal document preparers could be subjected to a harassing UPL investigation; or even fined or face incarceration. Just for doing our jobs. Just for trying to assist a consumer.
In fact, in the big picture, our risks are minimal providing we plan ahead and take precautions. A roofer knows how to walk a roof, to wear a safety harness if the pitch is too steep. Fire fighters have safety gear which they must keep in good working order at all times. So that when they run into the burning building they have their gear to rely on. We also have tools to mitigate risk. Use them.
The Florida Supreme Court, the Florida Bar, and the Florida Commission on Access to Justice has been discussing and debating various initiatives for as long as I can remember to increase consumers access to the court system. Despite their efforts there has been little actual change or improvement since we formed FALDP in 2010. Document preparers are completely overlooked as part of an official solution. Every time I see a newspaper article, a Florida Bar Review article, or press release that discusses the need for private sector innovation to increase citizens legal access, I write an email to the Florida Bar. I tell them - we're here - we are part of the solution. If I get a response at all, it is usually along the lines of don't call us, we'll call you.
Besides being dismissed and ignored we are harassed. The threat of an investigation is always there. We hang back in the shadows and are not as aggressive in promoting our businesses as we might be. We fly under the radar and try not to draw attention to ourselves. We second guess our every move, lest we might somehow do something that a UPL Committee or a lone attorney decides might be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
More than one FALDP member has closed up shop, specifically because of the threat of unfounded UPL allegations. Until the day we demand that the State of Florida recognizes that document preparers are here to stay, that document preparers provide a sought after service, and we have earned our place in the legal system -- we, as business professionals, will remain marginalized, vulnerable, and ineffective.
Today I ask every FALDP member to stand with me and demand what is ours. Demand the right to pursue our livelihood without interference. Demand the respect that each of us deserves. Actively transcend the challenges we face by faithfully serving our customers. And because of their gratitude seize what is ours. We create positive change in consumers lives everyday. We help those who have given up, who don't know what to do, and who cannot possibly afford an attorney. We make Florida a better place to live, despite the zealots who would have us fined and imprisoned. Come with me out of the shadows. Bask in the sunshine. Fly into the radar. Stand with me to seize what is yours. Transform the fear into a mission to continue your work in the light of day. Stand with me and never look back.