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Vermont Supreme Court Dismisses Information Alleging that “Jailhouse Lawyer” Engaged in the Unauthorized Practice of Law

In In re Serendipity Morales, 2016 VT 85 (Aug. 5, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court dismissed without prejudice the State’s information alleging that Morales engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Issue: The State filed an information in February 2016 alleging that Morales had committed six counts of the unauthorized practice of law. Morales is an inmate at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center, and an officer for the Bennington County Sherriff’s Department alleged that five inmates told him that Morales helped them by drafting handwritten motions that they then reviewed and signed. Each of the inmates in question had counsel, and none of them provided payment for Morales’s help with the motions. The Court then scheduled a probable-cause hearing.

Holding: After reviewing Vermont’s case law on the unauthorized practice of law, the Court noted that while the state has a broad definition of “unauthorized practice,” non-lawyers are allowed to appear in court under certain circumstances. The Court also noted that Vermont’s Department of Corrections recognizes the existence of jailhouse lawyers, and allows inmates to communicate frequently with other inmates who are known to offer legal advice. With this background in mind, the Court found that Morales’s conduct did not amount to the unauthorized practice of law. However, the Court did highlight the fact that this holding is limited. The holding in this case is limited to the facts as alleged by the State, namely that Morales did not receive financial compensation for her legal assistance. Further, this holding does not extend to inmates signing and filing pleadings on behalf of other inmates. Finally, this holding does not mean that a court must accept a pro se pleading or motion filed by an inmate assisted by Morales when counsel for that inmate had already entered an appearance.

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