The Georgia Supreme Court has ratified a decision by the state bar's Standing Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law that bans non-lawyers from answering garnishments, unless they are doing so for themselves. Since most garnishments are made against corporations (such as employers and banks) rather than against individuals, this effectively requires hiring a lawyer to answer a garnishment.
Answering a garnishment in Georgia is a fairly simple task, requiring the garnishee (in most cases, the business that is required to withhold wages from a worker) to state how much the worker gets paid, how often he is paid, and what part of the wages, if any, are exempt from garnishment. These are numbers that any bookkeeper or sole proprietor for a small business would have readily available. All a lawyer will do in these cases is fill out a form like the one provided by a Georgia court here (on the second page).
Actually, lawyers will do a second thing for garnishees: send them a bill for their "services." The Georgia garnishment statute allows a garnishee to withhold up to $50 to pay for legal services related to the garnishment, but $50 doesn't cover a lawyer's bill the way it used to in the 1920s. The statute allows garnishees to have a court hearing to ask for higher lawyer's fees, but of course that hearing would also require hiring a lawyer. Whoever pays for the lawyer, it's a waste of resources to pay someone else to fill out such a simple form. However, since engaging in UPL in Georgia is a misdemeanor, any business owner attempting to respond to a garnishment without a lawyer could face a fine of $1,000 or imprisonment for up to a year.
The Georgia Supreme Court and the UPL Committee are ultimately only doing what they are supposed to do in this situation, which is to apply the law as written to facts before them. However, in this case, the law is one that imposes unnecessary costs on small businesses that are already threatened by the economic downturn. The Georgia legislature should change the state's definition of UPL to allow the answering of garnishments without a lawyer.
The Georgia Bar's Standing Committee on Unlicensed Practice of Law is holding a hearing on June 1 to determine whether forestry consultants using form contracts are engaging in UPL. Responsive Law has submitted testimony on this issue. While we left the specifics of how this decision might impact the timber industry to the Georgia Forestry Association, our testimony focused on the effect that the committee's decision could have on the everyday legal needs of Georgians.
Specifically, we pointed out that most Georgians cannot afford a lawyer, and that they often seek free help from family, friends, and colleagues with legal matters, including filling out forms. If the UPL Committee rules that forestry consultants, who do not charge for the completion of contract forms, are engaged in UPL, then so is the person with a better grasp of English (or of legalese) who assists her friend with completing a legal form relating to a divorce or a foreclosure. This help may not be as valuable as that provided by a lawyer, but it is often all that people can afford. Unless the Georgia Bar plans to offer tens of thousands of additional hours of pro bono service to poor and middle-class Georgians, it should not take away the limited help that they have. That, more than forestry consultants, is what is at stake here.
In May, Responsive Law submitted testimony to the Georgia Bar Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee opposing attempts to prohibit the use of fill-in-the-blank forms by foresters completing timber contracts.
While this may seem like an obscure issue, an adverse ruling could have a severe impact on everyday consumers, as a prohibition on these forms could open the door to prohibitions on forms and software used for residential leases, wills, uncontested divorces, and many other common transactions. Consumers with simple legal matters would be forced to hire a lawyer rather than making use of low-cost alternatives.
Fortunately, the Georgia UPL Committee agreed with us in a decision it just handed down, so consumers will remain free to use legal forms in Georgia.