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The Third Branch

Legal information vs. legal advice by court staff

By Sharon Millermon, Barron County Clerk of Circuit Court

Editor's note: Court officials in Barron and Eau Claire counties have written nearly two dozen public education columns for local newspapers since launching the "Community Communications" outreach project in 2012. The program was developed after Barron County Circuit Court Judge James C. Babler, Clerk of Circuit Court Sharon Millermon and Eau Claire County Clerk of Circuit Court Kristina Aschenbrenner attended Improving Rural Courts: A Network Approach in Napa, Calif., Oct. 23-­26, 2011. This article was distributed for publication during February 2014. Previous columns are posted on CourtNet under Publications and Manuals and the Courts Connecting with Communities heading.

Throughout the state, more individuals are coming to court offices without an attorney. Court staff have an obligation to explain court procedures to court users and are expected to provide the best customer service possible for all individuals to have access to justice without giving legal advice.

Court staff may not provide legal advice for the following three reasons:

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 70.41 sets forth the dos and don'ts, but the line between legal information and legal advice is not always clear for court staff. Please note the examples below indicate what court staff shall provide and also what court staff may not provide:

Court staff must also guard against ex parte communication (only one side is present). Neither parties nor attorneys may communicate with a judge without the other side present. Often individuals will request to speak to a judge individually believing if the judge only heard what they had to say, the judge could solve the problem/issue immediately. The judge can see a party only at a hearing or trial when the other side is also present.

Individuals who come to the courts seeking legal assistance can be assured court staff will do the best job possible in providing legal information, but not legal advice.

For more information, the Director of State Courts Office has published a guide for court staff entitled, Legal Information vs. Legal Advice.

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