The function of the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) of the State Bar of Georgia is to serve the public and members of the Bar. Individuals contact CAP with their questions or issues about legal situations, seeking information, complaints about attorneys and communication problems between clients and attorneys. Most problems can be resolved by CAP's providing information and referrals, possibly contacting the attorney or suggesting other ways of dealing with the situation. CAP does not investigate allegations of very serious unethical misconduct. At CAP's request, persons with such complaints are referred to another department at the Bar for possible investigation.
What does CAP do?
Following are some typical problems and what the Consumer Assistance Program does to help:
"I am having trouble getting a lawyer to handle my case." CAP cannot refer consumers to individual lawyers, but will suggest they call their local voluntary (non-regulatory) bar association or lawyer referral service.
"The lawyer won't return my calls." CAP may call or write the lawyer to express the client's concerns.
"I don't know what's happening on my case. I haven't heard from my lawyer for months." After a client has unsuccessfully tried to contact the attorney, CAP may call the lawyer and request that an update on the case be provided to the client.
"How do I fire my lawyer?" CAP suggests that the client contact the attorney and try to work things out. If that is not successful, CAP suggests that the client send the attorney a certified letter (with return receipt) which includes the following: a dated statement of dismissal, along with a request for the return of the client's entire original file, an itemized statement and a request for the return of any unearned attorney fees.
"My former lawyer won't release the file." After a client has tried unsuccessfully to get the file back, CAP may contact the lawyer to explain that the client needs the file in order to pursue the active case.
"I need a transcript of my trial for a habeas corpus petition." Clients are advised to contact the clerk of the trial court to request transcripts.
"How do I get the court to appoint me a lawyer?" Clients are advised to contact the court. The court, not the State Bar of Georgia, appoints attorneys. The Bar has absolutely nothing to do with the appointment of attorneys.
"I want to file a complaint against the judge." CAP tells the client about the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which deals with complaints concerning judicial misconduct.
"A check on a lawyer's trust account bounced." CAP will request that a grievance form be sent to the client, who should get legal advice about how to recover the funds.
"My lawyer came to court intoxicated." CAP will give the caller the toll free number to the Lawyer Assistance Program, which may be able to help when it appears the lawyer is impaired by substance abuse or is otherwise impaired. This is strictly confidential.
"My lawyer's bill is too high!" CAP urges the client to look at the fee agreement, find out how much time the lawyer has worked on the case and to look at the file to see what work has been done. If it appears the client is being charged for unnecessary work or work that has not been done, the client should contact the lawyer to work out the fee dispute. If that is not successful, call the State Bar's Fee Arbitration Program for additional options.
"Can my lawyer withdraw from the case?" Yes, under certain circumstances. An attorney wishing to withdraw from an active court case should file a Motion to Withdraw. If the court grants the Motion, the attorney may then withdraw. The client's case must not be jeopardized. Clients are advised to get other legal advice.
"A lawyer who represents a creditor is pestering me to pay up." CAP lets callers know that the opposing counsel is supposed to be a zealous advocate for his or her client. Clients should get legal advice about how to respond to the demand for payment, particularly if the amount in question is disputed. Find out about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and what can be done to make bill collectors stop calling. Suspected violations of the FDCPA should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission.
"I want to sue my lawyer for malpractice." CAP refers clients to local (non-regulatory) bar associations, which can give them names of attorneys who handle such cases. Legal malpractice is a matter for the courts, a civil action, not for the State Bar.
"A lawyer was rude to me!" CAP advises the consumer that such behavior is not condoned and is unprofessional, but it does not violate the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct that governs the practice of law in Georgia.
"My lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel." While the State Bar does not have jurisdiction over claims of ineffective assistance, CAP can refer consumers to other agencies that may provide assistance in such situations.
"I'm afraid to fire my lawyer because I paid a fee up front." Clients should review their contract with the attorney. In most circumstances CAP tells consumers that lawyers must return any unearned fee when they are discharged or withdraw. A client should ask for an itemized bill and return of the unearned fee when the attorney is discharged.
"My ex-spouse is a lawyer who is delinquent in paying child support." Once CAP receives a certified copy of an order by a Georgia Court pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 19-6-28.1, CAP will notify the lawyer of the suspension of his or her license to practice. The suspension will be lifted once certain requirements are met.
What doesn't CAP do?
The State Bar of Georgia is prohibited from intervening in cases, interpreting laws or rules, giving any legal advise and referring persons to individual attorneys. CAP does not investigate allegations of serious attorney misconduct, because that is a function of the Office of the General Counsel (OGC). When appropriate, CAP requests OGC to send grievances to persons complaining of serious, unethical attorney misconduct. CAP does not have "in person" meetings; all of CAP's actions are handled by telephone, letter, fax and email.
What if I want to file a complaint against an attorney?
CAP tries to help consumers solve problems in other ways by improving lawyer-client communications and resolving conflicts through informal methods. Filing a grievance may not solve a client's problem, so CAP works to find other options. There are, of course, situations in which grievances are necessary.
How do people find out about CAP?
When people call the State Bar with a problem, their calls are routed to CAP. Some people learn about CAP from family members or friends who have called before. Several State Bar consumer publications refer to CAP, and referrals are made from other consumer services, the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs and local bar associations.
Does the State Bar offer other consumer services?
CAP is a clearinghouse for callers, helping identify the client's problem and which other departments may be able to help: Fee Arbitration, the Office of the General Counsel, Unauthorized Practice of Law, etc.
Does CAP assist attorneys as well as consumers?
Yes. CAP helps lawyers by providing courtesy calls, faxes or letters when dissatisfied clients contact the program.
Most problems with clients can be prevented by returning calls promptly, keeping clients informed about the status of their cases, explaining billing practices, meeting deadlines, and managing a caseload efficiently.
Are CAP calls confidential?
Everything CAP deals with is confidential, except:
Where the information clearly shows that the lawyer has misappropriated funds, engaged in criminal conduct, or intends to engage in criminal conduct in the future;
Where the caller files a grievance and the lawyer involved wants CAP to share some information with the Office of the General Counsel; or
A court compels the production of the information.
The purpose of the confidentiality rule is to encourage open communication and resolve conflicts informally.
How long are CAP records retained?
CAP retains correspondence for 30 days, after which it is destroyed. No original documents should be sent to CAP.
Is CAP successful in solving consumer problems?
While CAP cannot successfully resolve every problem, it has handled thousands of inquiries since 1995 with a staff of five, including two lawyers. Approximately 80 percent of consumers' problems are resolved without having to use the disciplinary procedure (filing a grievance).