NAACP, profs seek to back nonprofit in lawsuit over free legal advice program

REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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  • Groups filed proposed briefs supporting Upsolve’s injunction bid
  • Program goal is to increase access to the courts

(Reuters) – Civil rights groups and law professors have submitted briefs supporting nonprofit Upsolve Inc’s bid to train non-lawyers to offer free legal advice to people facing debt collection lawsuits without running afoul of New York rules on the practice of law.

Groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed proposed briefs this week in Manhattan federal court that back Upsolve and a South Bronx pastor, who sued New York Attorney General Letitia James’ Office in January.

The case comes as access to justice advocates drive efforts in several U.S. states to give professionals who aren’t lawyers more leeway to provide legal advice in limited contexts.

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Upsolve argued that applying state rules prohibiting unauthorized law practice to its planned access to justice program would violate its rights under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The project would equip people to give free and “individualized” legal advice to low-income New Yorkers on responding to debt collection actions, the complaint said.

Upsolve said the threat of prosecution under the rules, which prevent people who aren’t lawyers from offering legal advice, is holding it back from starting the program. The organization sought a preliminary injunction to clear the way.

The National Center for Access to Justice, a nonprofit out of Fordham University’s law school, and a group of 25 law professors across the country who work on access to justice and regulatory issues, are among the others that submitted proposed briefs this week.

Matthew Lawson of the New York Attorney General’s Office, who represents the office in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the briefs.

The NAACP said in its brief the “outcome of this case will have profound civil rights implications for NAACP members and for the NAACP’s institutional interest in redressing injustice and inequality.”

The group said the “unnecessarily broad” unauthorized practice rules “significantly limit the scope of the aid” the NAACP can offer to debt collection defendants.

Rebecca Sandefur, a professor at the Arizona State University who studies access to civil justice issues, said in her own brief that research shows the “safety and effectiveness” of legal solutions provided by non-lawyers in some situations.

U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty, who is overseeing the case, also asked the parties on Wednesday for suggestions of others who might weigh in.

The case is Upsolve Inc et al v. James, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 1:22-CV-00627.

For Upsolve: Zack Tripp of Weil, Gotshal & Manges

For James: Matthew Lawson of the New York Attorney General’s Office

For NAACP and NAACP New York State: Daniel Rubens of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe

For NCAJ: David Udell of National Center for Access to Justice

For the law professors: Richard St. John of Munger, Tolles & Olson

For Rebecca Sandefur: Peter Karanjia of DLA Piper

Read more:

Nonprofit sues N.Y. AG over practice rules in bid to provide free legal advice

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