A lawsuit filed Jan. 4 in the Eastern District of North Carolina seeks to free up regulations surrounding legal advice in the state.

The lawsuit — filed jointly by the NC Justice for All Project and the Institute for Justice — seeks to allow non-lawyers to provide limited legal advice on subjects such as domestic violence, evictions, restraining orders, uncontested divorces, and child custody. The advice would be provided either free or at a substantial discount over what an attorney typically charges. 

Under current NC laws, non-attorneys are prohibited from such activity, which is called unauthorized practice of law and punishable by up to 120 days in jail.

“Advice, even advice about important subjects like one’s legal rights, is speech protected by the First Amendment,” said Institute for Justice attorney Christian Lansinger during a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

He added that North Carolina lacks enough lawyers to meet demand for legal services — there are 2.5 attorneys per 1,000 residents and one legal aid attorney per 7,500 residents. Almost half of those attorneys operate in Wake or Mecklenburg counties, “and most are too expensive for low-income and moderate-income North Carolinians,” Lasinger said.

Legal advice is some of the most “heavily regulated speech in America,” noted Institute for Justice senior attorney Paul Sherman during the same press conference. “As our economy has moved to a more information-based economy, more people earn their living through speaking, through the advice or information that they provide. But as occupational licensing has grown, more and more of that speech is being subject to government regulation.”

“Our goal with filing this lawsuit is to make legal services more accessible — and that’s accessible to everyone,” said SM Kernodle-Hodges, co-founder and executive director of the NC Justice for All Project. “Whether you’re homeless or wealthy, legal services should not have barriers … all matters don’t require an attorney. Sometimes they just require the correct resource.”

The Institute for Justice is currently litigating a similar case involving legal advice in New York on behalf of Upsolve, a nonprofit that similarly wants to have nonlawyers provide basic legal advice about court-created forms. In May 2022, a federal judge in New York granted a preliminary injunction allowing that group to offer its advice, concluding that the First Amendment protected its speech.