KALISPELL — The state attorney general's office has dropped a complaint that argued phone book advertising by paralegal Jerry O'Neil of Columbia Falls deceived people about his practice.
"This win, along with the Montana Supreme Court disbanding their Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, will make it easier for people of modest means to receive legal services," said O'Neil, a former state senator who is a Republican candidate for state representative.
A complaint filed against O'Neil in June 2007 alleged he violated the state's Unfair Trade and Consumer Protection Act with an ad in the attorney's section of the yellow pages identifying himself as an independent paralegal who offered low-cost divorces.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena denied a state request for summary judgment in April, saying it would be up to a jury to decide if the advertising was deceptive. The judge gave the state until May 24 to respond to O'Neil's request to identify someone who claimed to have been deceived by his advertising.
The state did not respond and instead an assistant attorney general signed an agreement dismissing the case. Kevin O'Brien, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the changes the Supreme Court made regarding the unauthorized practice of law led to the decision.
O'Neil has tangled with the state and the commission over his status as an "independent paralegal" for years.
In 2006, the commission pursued litigation that resulted in District Judge Kim Christopher of Polson affirming an injunction that prohibited O'Neil from practicing law or advertising that he is capable of doing so.
O'Neil said that injunction said he can act as a lay representative if authorized by administrative agencies or tribunals, can serve as an arbitrator or mediator, can act as a lobbyist or legislator and can fill in preprinted documents, such as wills. An attorney has to review some documents he prepares.
O'Neil said most of his business involves offering mediation for divorcing parties to help them divide their property and share custody of their children.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled last month that neither the court nor the commission it created had the authority to regulate the unauthorized practice of law, but that the Legislature has charged the executive branch with investigating and prosecuting such cases. That ruling came after the commission filed a petition seeking more than the $1,000 annual budget it had. The commission said the sparse funding meant only one case had been prosecuted since the commission started in 1976 — O'Neil's.
The state attorney general's Office for Consumer Protection agreed to take on the duties of the commission.