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Licensing Statutes

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

To practice most professions and carry on the trade of an increasing number of occupations, states require that providers of services possess licenses—hairdressers, doctors, plumbers, real estate brokers, and egg inspectors are among those on a long list. As sometimes happens, though, a person may contract for the services of one who is unlicensed either because he is unqualified and carrying on his business without a license or because for technical reasons (e.g., forgetting to mail in the license renewal application) he does not possess a license at the moment. Robin calls Paul, a plumber, to install the pipes for her new kitchen. Paul, who has no license, puts in all the pipes and asks to be paid. Having discovered that Paul is unlicensed, Robin refuses to pay. May Paul collect?

To answer the question, a three-step analysis is necessary. First, is a license required? Some occupations may be performed without a license (e.g., lawn mowing). Others may be performed with or without certain credentials, the difference lying in what the professional may tell the public. (For instance, an accountant need not be a certified public accountant to carry on most accounting functions.) Let us assume that the state requires everyone who does any sort of plumbing for pay to have a valid license.

The second step is to determine whether the licensing statute explicitly bars recovery by someone who has performed work while unlicensed. Some do; many others contain no specific provision on the point. Statutes that do bar recovery must of course govern the courts when they are presented with the question.

If the statute is silent, courts must, in the third step of the analysis, distinguish between “regulatory” and “revenue” licenses. A regulatory license is intended to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. To obtain these licenses, the practitioner of the art must generally demonstrate his or her abilities by taking some sort of examination, like the bar exam for lawyers or the medical boards for doctors. A plumber’s or electrician’s licensing requirement might fall into this category. A revenue license generally requires no such examination and is imposed for the sake of raising revenue and to ensure that practitioners register their address so they can be found if a disgruntled client wants to serve them legal papers for a lawsuit. Some revenue licenses, in addition to requiring registration, require practitioners to demonstrate that they have insurance. A license to deliver milk, open to anyone who applies and pays the fee, would be an example of a revenue license. (In some states, plumbing licenses are for revenue purposes only.)

Generally speaking, failure to hold a regulatory license bars recovery, but the absence of a revenue or registration license does not—the person may obtain the license and then move to recover. See Unlicensed Practitioner Cannot Collect Fee for an example of a situation in which the state statute demands practitioners be licensed.


Gambling, interest rates, and Sunday contracts are among the types of contracts that have, variously, been subject to legislative illegality. Laws may require certain persons to have licenses in order to practice a trade or profession. Whether an unlicensed person is barred from recovering a fee for service depends on the language of the statute and the purpose of the requirement: if it is a mere revenue-raising or registration statute, recovery will often be allowed. If the practitioner is required to prove competency, no recovery is possible for an unlicensed person.


  1. List the typical kinds of contracts made illegal by statute.
  2. Why are some practitioners completely prohibited from collecting a fee for service if they don’t have a license, and others allowed to collect the fee after they get the license?
  3. If no competency test is required, why do some statutes require the practitioner to be licensed?