Another Voice on Access to Justice

Just a few weeks ago the dean and president of Vermont Law School spoke out on the increasing role of nonlawyers in serving the legal needs of our community. This is, of course, a opportunity for paralegals as I noted in my post regarding his comments. However, my focus in this regard has been on the role paralegals can play in resolving the access to justice problem in the United States (see the “Access to Justice” category.) In 2010 I commented, “On accepting his appointment as Senior Counselor for Access to Justice in the Department of Justice where he will lead a newly launched initiative aimed at improving access to civil and criminal legal services, Laurence Tribe stated, ‘Access to justice for all is at the core of our nation’s values.’ The DOJ initiative recognizes a need to ‘enhance the delivery of legal services to the poor and middle class, and identify and promote alternatives to court-intensive and lawyer-intensive solutions.’ One alternative to lawyer-intensive solutions is the effective utilization of paralegals.”

Now Gillian Hadfield, the Richard L. and Antoinette Kirtland professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California, is making a similar point. While I’ve based many of my comments on the model presently being tested in Ontario, Canada (see “Canada” category,) Professor Kirtland focuses on the differences between the present American system and the system in place in Great Britain in a story on CNN.  First. some of her statements on the present status of access to justice in the U.S.:

In our country, lawyers and judges regulate their own markets. The upshot is that getting legal help is enormously expensive and out of reach for the vast majority of Americans. Anyone faced with a contract dispute, family crisis, foreclosure or eviction must pay a lawyer with a JD degree to provide service one-on-one in the same way lawyers have done business for hundreds of years.

Increasingly, the only “persons” with access to legal help are “artificial persons” — corporations, organizations and governments. No wonder that in a 2010 New York study, it was shown 95% of people in housing court are unrepresented. The same is true in consumer credit and child support cases; 44% of people in foreclosures are representing themselves—against a well-represented bank, no small number of whom engaged in robo-signing and sued people based on faulty information.

These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. For every person who is unrepresented in court there are probably tens of thousands who didn’t have any legal advice when they did the things that landed them in hot water in the first place. Who can afford $200 to $300 an hour to get advice on local small business regulations, the fine print in a mortgage document, or how not to make mistakes that will cost you in court when fighting over kids and money with your soon-to-be ex-spouse?

Professor Kirtland then reinforces my point:

That’s why the only way to increase access to justice is to expand the group of people and organizations that can provide legal help beyond JD-trained and licensed lawyers.

Authorized nonlawyers and organizations could help ease our overburdened courts in many ways. Each year, 2.3 million New Yorkers, for example, represent themselves in state courts. These litigants do not want to be in court or to manage their problems alone, but have no other practical choice. They frequently labor under huge misunderstandings about legal procedures, requirements and forms. Oodles of judges and lawyers have complained about the delays and complications these misunderstandings create.

Imagine how much more efficient the court would be if the unrepresented could obtain low-cost legal assistance from people expert enough to help them navigate the process. Especially if those people were using the systems and protocols developed by a large-scale company, maybe even online.

She then uses the Great Britain system to illustrate her point:

The use of non-JD legal assistants and nonlawyer dominated businesses is not a venture into uncharted waters. The United Kingdom has a long history of allowing a wide variety of differently trained individuals and organizations provide legal assistance, and studies show that the practice works very well. In many cases, people are better served by a nonlawyer organization that specializes in a particular type of legal help—navigating housing or bankruptcy matters, for example—than they are by a solo practitioner with a general practice.

Furthermore, when people have access to lower-cost alternatives to full-fledged attorneys, they use these resources. In practical terms, that means that only 5% to 10% ignore their legal issues in the United Kingdom. Compare that to New York, where significant majorities of low-income households with legal problems—65% with housing problems, 59% with financial issues, 50% with health insurance problems—do nothing in response to their problems. But as often is the case, untreated problems lead to worse problems—and bigger headaches for our courts.

The entire article is well worth the read. Her solution is to change the way we regulate the provision of legal services, a proposal that we as a country should seriously consider. Indeed, it is past time for mere consideration. It is time to begin acting on this type of proposal and legal professionals of all stripes should be at the forefront of that process.

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