Panel proposes pilot project to test legal technician program
By Laura Ernde
A State Bar task force last month proposed the development of a pilot program for limited licensing of legal technicians as part of a series of recommendations aimed at closing the so-called “justice gap.”
Millions of low- and middle-income Californians fall into the gap of needing civil legal assistance but not being able to afford to hire a lawyer. In some cases, they may even qualify for legal aid, but are turned away by cash-strapped nonprofit providers, according to the newly released Civil Justice Strategies Task Force report.
After studying the problem for about a year, the task force has proposed a series of ideas for closing the gap. Public comment is being sought through May 11 and then the report will go to the Board of Trustees.
Among the recommendations is a proposal to take the next step toward licensing legal technicians. The limited licensing concept was endorsed by a board working group in 2013. The task force now advocates that the bar work with the state Supreme Court to design a pilot program covering one subject matter. How the governance, oversight and licensing would be handled is yet to be determined.
Ideally, the technicians would be able to perform the limited services at a reduced cost to consumers, said State Bar President Craig Holden.
“We are not talking about taking food off lawyers’ plates, we are talking about serving communities in need of legal service, particularly in life-critical areas,” he said.
Other recommendations for new ways to tackle the access to justice problem include exploring ways to re-engineer the system to make it easier to use and adding volunteer court “navigators” to help self-represented litigants understand the process without giving legal advice, the report said.
The task force also made suggestions for boosting existing programs, such as promoting legal incubators and the Justice Gap Fund.
A third area of focus for the task force was ballooning law school debt. According to U.S. News and World Report, new lawyers are entering the profession with an average debt of more than $134,000.
The debt burden exacerbates the access to justice problem by making it more difficult for lawyers to take lower-paying legal aid jobs. It also raises concerns that financial pressures can drive lawyers to engage in risky behavior that could land them in the bar’s discipline system, the report said.
“This really is an access to justice and public protection issue,” Trustee Miriam Krinsky said at the March board meeting when the report was approved for public comment. “Our recommendations are a start rather than an end.”
The task force recommends creating a group to implement a number of recommendations, from assessing the relationship of debt to attorney misconduct to working with law schools and the California Young Lawyers Association.