More on Access to Justice

Giliam Hadfield, a Harvard law professor writing in The Washington Post argues for innovative approaches to low-cost, quality legal services. He makes several points that support statements made in my last two posts. Here are some excerpts:

The United States stands largely alone in advanced-market democracies in drastically restricting where and how people can get help with their legal problems. In all states, under rules created by bar associations and state supreme courts, only people with law degrees and who are admitted to the state bar can provide legal advice and services of any kind.

In England, Australia and the Netherlands, by contrast, a wide variety of professionals and experts can provide legal assistance.

Free legal aid clinics hardly fill the gap: Only 1 percent of the 1 million lawyers in the United State do either legal aid or public defender work; student-staffed law clinics can operate only under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Pro-bono hours at best amount to about 2 percent of total legal effort.

There’s nothing wrong with ensuring quality of service, but attacks on innovative providers in the United States go well beyond what can be justified in a world that looks so much to law to organize everyday life. They also go much further than other wise countries go.

My research suggests that Americans have a much higher rate of simply giving up in the face of legal difficulties, with effectively nowhere to turn if they cannot afford a lawyer who comes at a minimum price of $150 an hour. This means giving up on seeing their children or saving their homes or credit ratings or jobs. Unlike people in Britain, those facing legal problems in the United States can’t turn to local volunteer organizations, their unions or consumer organizations. They can’t buy what they need from entrepreneurs or the full-service stores like Wal-Mart that now package low-cost eye exams, insurance, banking and more with their diapers and detergents.

This may explain why in U.S. surveys 30 to 40 percent of Americans with an identifiable legal problem say they do nothing to resolve it, compared with just 5 percent in Britain. Yes, Britain spends far more public funds on ensuring access to justice — $76 in legal aid per capita compared with $13 in the States (including charitable contributions). But the critical difference is the widespread and diverse availability of help in Britain and other advanced-market democracies for people with legal troubles — not just criminal arrest but issues such as foreclosure, divorce, child custody, employment and bankruptcy. The United States urgently needs to expand capacity for non-lawyers to meet the legal needs of ordinary Americans in innovative and less costly ways.

As is no secret by now, this commentator argues that well-trained, well-regulated, professional paralegals provide one viable answer to the access to justice issue.

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