Pro Bono Service by Magistrates, Prosecutors, Public Defenders, and Others Now Allowed

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Sometimes it seems lawyers have a Latin phrase for everything: Self-represented litigants? They’re pro se. The thing speaks for itself? Res ipsa loquitur. Volunteer legal work? That’s pro bono to us.

While attorneys have had an English word and Latin phrase to describe this last category, many public attorneys in North Carolina have historically had no mechanism for actually doing it. That’s because, until last July, G.S. 84-2 prohibited district attorneys, public defenders, and others from “engag[ing] in the private practice of law.” A person practices law when he or she provides legal services for another, regardless of whether the person is compensated for the work. See G.S. 84-2.1.

Recent amendments to G.S. 84-2, however, allow some public attorneys who were previously disqualified to carry out certain types of pro bono legal work.

G.S. 84-2, as amended by Section 26 of S.L. 2017-158 (NCAOC Omnibus Bill). G.S. 84-2 continues to generally prohibit the following persons from engaging in the private practice of law:

  • Justices;
  • Judges;
  • Magistrates;
  • Full-time district attorneys and full-time assistant district attorneys;
  • Full-time public defenders and full-time assistant public defenders;
  • Clerks, deputy clerks, and assistant clerks;
  • Registers of deeds, deputy registers of deeds, and assistant registers of deeds; and
  • Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs.

A violation of G.S. 84-2 remains a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $200.

The statute now provides, however, that the private practice of law does not include the performance of pro bono legal services by (1) a lawyer; (2) other than a justice or judge; (3) if the pro bono services are sponsored or organized by (a) a professional association of lawyers, or (b) a non-profit corporation rendering legal services. The amendments were effective July 21, 2017.

These new provisions enable previously disqualified public lawyers to volunteer their legal services at events such as annual call centers sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association or perhaps at expunction clinics like those recently held in Raleigh and Charlotte, so long as the services are sponsored or organized by a qualified group.

Are you a public attorney who was previously disqualified who now wishes to volunteer legal services? If so, please send in a comment to tell us how you plan to donate your time to help others.

One comment on “Pro Bono Service by Magistrates, Prosecutors, Public Defenders, and Others Now Allowed

  1. I am a magistrate in Wake County and have always hoped that public lawyers would be given the freedom to perform pro bono legal services. While I and any other public lawyers will likely have to collaborate with the powers that be in our counties to be sure no conflicts exist with our day jobs and specific pro bono opportunities, I think galvanizing the massive resource that is “public lawyers” could have lasting, positive effects throughout North Carolina. Thank you all for starting the discussion of this important new law!

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