government wants to drive Document-preparation firms out of business so lawyers have a monopoly on the business.
Legal services proposal draws concern from tax preparers
Dec. 2, 2002 03:45 PM
The state court system is close to casting judgment on an evolving but still contentious proposal from attorneys to keep non-lawyers from providing legal services.
Saying shoddy work by some document preparers victimizes customers who have no effective recourse, the State Bar of Arizona wants the Arizona Supreme Court to regulate non-lawyers doing legal work, approve a new definition for the practice of law and establish a disciplinary process for violators.
The process would be similar to one already existing for lawyers. It could result in orders to reimburse clients and to stop practicing law, and violations could lead to civil contempt-of-court citations punishable by fines or jail time.
Opposition has surfaced from hundreds of tax professionals who say the proposal is so broad it could put them out of business.
Similar criticism came earlier from document preparers, but the bar's proposal now calls for allowing document preparers to operate if they get state certification and comply with training and other requirements.
Meanwhile, some lawyers say that would create problems of its own by misleading the public into thinking the state is putting a seal of approval on the quality of document preparers' work.
"If the judicial branch of government of this state licenses document preparers, we will be placing our seal of approval on a system of second class legal help (or, given the quality of much of the work, third or fourth class legal help) for the poorest of our citizens," wrote Cochise County Superior Court Judge Wallace Hoggatt.
The state bar is also talking about asking the Legislature to again make it a crime to practice law in Arizona without being licensed.
Document-preparation firms have sprung up since a state law making unauthorized practice of law a misdemeanor lapsed in 1985.
Those newly fearful of running afoul of the proposed new definition include enrolled agents - tax professionals licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to practice before the Internal Revenue Service.
More than 40 enrolled agents wrote protest letters to the court's administrative office concerning the proposed rule changes expected to be considered Dec. 12 by the Judicial Council and then by the Arizona Supreme Court.
"Our activities include the preparation of many kinds of tax returns, but they also include much more," wrote Prescott tax specialist Robert S. Stearns. "Our clients are often totally unaware of the issues involved.
"It could be argued that any form we prepare or audit we assist with involves one or more points of law. We do not wish to prepare what are generally considered legal documents, but we do need to take care for our clients," Stearns added.
Tucson tax specialist Larry J. Martin, president of the 700-member Arizona Society of Enrolled Agents, said barring enrolled agents from continuing to provide tax advice and representation would mean that clients either would have to go without help or pay much more for it.
"Individuals and small businesses will clearly lose representation," Martin said.
Charles E. Dangel, president of the society's southern Arizona chapter, said its members don't want to practice law.
A court official said the enrolled agents' concerns will be discussed with bar officials. Bar officials were not immediately for comment Monday.
Document preparer Rick Gordon of Phoenix responded to Hoggatt's criticism by arguing the certification system's accountability, regulation and education requirements for non-lawyers would help make the legal system accessible to tens of thousands of Arizonans each year.
"This proposal is good for the people of Arizona," concluded Gordon, a member of a task force assembled by Chief Justices Charles Jones to hammer out the modified proposal.
On the Net:
State Bar of Arizona: http://www.azbar.org
Arizona Supreme Court: http://www.supreme.state.az.us