New York lawsuit seeks to allow people to receive free legal advice over medical debt

New York City nonprofit Upsolve and a pastor filed a lawsuit Jan. 25 against the state attorney general's office in an effort to allow people to receive free legal advice over debt collections, including medical debt, according to court documents.

As it is illegal in New York for nonlawyers to give legal advice, Upsolve filed its lawsuit hoping for a declaration that laws governing the unauthorized practice of law do not apply to its American Justice Program, which Upsolve intends to operate to train professionals, who are not lawyers, on providing free legal advice about debt collection lawsuits.

Upsolve said in the lawsuit that the laws governing unauthorized legal practice mean that many low-income New Yorkers must fend for themselves and argued that applying those laws to the American Justice Program would be a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech.

"The vast majority of defendants are low-income individuals who cannot afford a lawyer, cannot find pro bono counsel, and face additional barriers that make it difficult to prepare and file an answer themselves. … They never have a day in court and lose their lawsuits and their property — even where the cases against them lack merit," the lawsuit argued. "The result is often wage garnishment, damage to credit, and a cascading cycle of harm to people who are already vulnerable, which also comes at a cost to the public." 

The Rev. Udo-Okon, one of the plaintiffs, wants to be a volunteer counselor with the program.

"Members of my community are shut out from ways to vindicate their own rights and are left with what feels to them like an oppressive justice system stacked against them," he said in a news release shared with Becker's

Three in four Americans owe more than $2,000 in medical debt, a December survey by Discover Personal Loans found. Medical debt also disproportionately hurts Black Americans.

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