Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Board of Professional Conduct Issues Self-Help Legal Clinic Advisory

The Board of Professional Conduct today issued an advisory opinion concerning court- established, self-help legal clinics.

In Advisory Opinion 2017-7 the Board concludes that a court-operated, self-help legal clinic is both permissible and envisioned under the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct and the Code of Judicial Conduct.

A self-help clinic provides short-term assistance to people of limited means who otherwise would be unrepresented. These clinics, staffed by lawyers appointed and compensated by a court, assist litigants to ensure they file the correct court forms, while explaining process issues and court procedures. The lawyers do not represent litigants before the court or sign any court filings on their behalf.

Given the short-term and limited nature of the legal assistance in the clinic, the Board determined that a clinic lawyer is permissibly providing limited-scope representation to the litigant that creates a limited client-lawyer relationship. A limited-scope representation requires the lawyer to still adhere to his or her ethical obligations, including providing competent and diligent legal services, maintaining client confidences, considering known conflicts, and giving notice to the client of a lack of malpractice insurance. The Board recommends that a clinic lawyer obtain the client’s written consent and acknowledgment to the limited-scope representation.

The opinion also addresses the ethical issues under the Code of Judicial Conduct that may implicate the impartiality and independence of a court when establishing a self-help clinic. A court should take steps to ensure the clinic is viewed, to the extent possible, as an independent function of the court, including the physical location of the clinic in the courthouse. In addition, the court’s involvement should be limited to the funding and the appointment of lawyers, but not the day-to-day operation of the clinic. Lastly, the same ethical boundaries observed by the court with lawyers appointed for indigent clients also should be maintained for self-help clinic lawyers.

Advisory Opinions of the Board of Professional Conduct are nonbinding opinions in response to prospective or hypothetical questions regarding the application of the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Bar of Ohio, the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Judiciary, the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct, the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct, and the Attorney’s Oath of Office