Non-lawyers see a greater role in helping litigants

If it wasn’t evident before, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on court proceedings – and the resulting backlog of cases – has highlighted the number of people with legal claims. This number does not include people who might want to file a claim but cannot afford a lawyer. Several states attempt to fill this gap in obtaining justice by allowing non-lawyers to assist litigants in certain cases.

The price for legal representation varies by state, region of the state, and subject matter. But even for relatively simple issues, the bill can quickly become out of reach, even for members of the middle class, as the country grapples with inflation. Divorces in Minnesota can range from a few thousand dollars to $10,000+.

Although there are several legal aid organizations and law school clinics offering pro bono services, these organizations have become incredibly overwhelmed. This leaves many people who may need a lawyer with the decision to take a chance and do it themselves or possibly take out a loan to get representation.

Minnesota, Arizona, Oregon, Utah, and Washington all have programs that were developed to provide common ground – limited legal help on some common legal issues that citizens face. Minnesota joined this initiative in 2021, greenlighting the legal paraprofessional pilot project. The Minnesota Judiciary noted that in some cases, parties were unrepresented between half or nearly all of the time. Paraprofessional legal assistance has been promoted as a way for previously unrepresented people to access quality representation. Legal paraprofessionals can provide legal advice and, in some cases, represent a client in court in landlord and tenant and family law disputes.

Utah has also encouraged the expansion of nonlawyer representation. Rule 14-802 of the Rules Governing the State Bar of Utah allows the Licensed Paralegal Practitioner (LPP) to practice law in certain areas of licensure. These areas include certain family law matters (such as custody and support), forced entry and detention, and debt collection where the dollar amount does not exceed the legal limit for small claims. In Utah Small Claims Court, an individual may be represented by an employee of a business, or the court may authorize a non-attorney to represent the individual until the non-attorney is paid. They are authorized to file certain forms, review court documents and represent clients in mediation. However, the LPP cannot litigate on behalf of a client.

Most recently, in July 2022, Oregon became the latest state to allow legal paraprofessionals to provide legal services in certain practice areas. The Oregon State Bar has been developing an accredited paralegal program since 2017. These paraprofessionals will be able to provide limited services in landlord and tenant cases and family law cases, which are two areas where unmet need is greatest in Oregon. Their program will come into effect next July.

No fewer than 10 other states are seeking to implement certain programs. But not everyone is on board. In California, two groups have been fiercely opposed to the question of whether looser regulations regarding legal services could make things fairer. One of these groups determines whether non-lawyers can provide limited legal services. In June 2022, the California Senate Judiciary Committee amended the state bar’s annual funding bill to limit these groups.

Washington State – the state that launched the Limited License Legal Technicians program in 2012 – stopped issuing new licenses in 2020. The program was the first in the United States to allow paraprofessionals to give legal advice without the supervision of a lawyer, as long as the advice was in the area of ​​family law. Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra L. Stephens cited “the overall costs of maintaining the program and the small number of interested people” as the reason for the program’s termination. The Washington State Bar Association called for the program to end, saying it cost $1.3 million to run the program from 2013 to 2019 when revenues were significantly lower than that. LLLTs in good standing may retain their license and provide services.

There has been pushback in Minnesota against paraprofessional legal representation in some family law cases such as the OFP and HRO cases. Organizations such as the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Family Law Section and Domestic Violence Committee, the St. Paul and Ramsey County Domestic Violence Intervention Project, and the viewpoint and the Minnesota Sexual Assault Coalition highlighted the complexities present in many family law proceedings. They raised concerns that legal paraprofessionals lacked the training of actual lawyers, which would have a potentially negative impact on victims.

Ultimately, the programs in all of these states are relatively nascent. It is unclear if they are the answer to closing the legal representation gap present not only in Minnesota but nationally. Nonetheless, Minnesota has the distinction of being one of the first states to attempt to close the gap.

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