Panel gives nod to limited license idea
By Laura Ernde
A State Bar working group has recommended further study of a
limited license to practice law program in order to boost access to legal
services for low-and moderate-income Californians.
License Working Group’s endorsement now goes to the Board of Trustees’ Committee
on Regulation, Admissions & Discipline Oversight, which meets on July 18 in
The working group heard testimony last month that nonprofit
organizations and court self-help centers have not been able to meet the demand
for legal services from low- and moderate-income people. As a result, those who
can’t afford to hire a lawyer often end up going it alone or turn to an
unregulated shadow market of people who aren’t qualified to give legal advice.
It was the last of three public meetings the working group
has held since April. At previous meetings, the group learned about Washington state’s
10-year path to create a limited license, along with studies in California dating
back to the 1980s and 1990s that supported the concept. The group also heard
that between 75 and 85 percent of family law litigants in California appear in
court without a lawyer’s representation.
Mary Lavery Flynn, director of the State Bar’s Office of
Legal Services, said great strides have been made to increase access to justice
in the last 15 years, including the creation of the Equal Access and the Justice
But despite these and other efforts to ensure that consumers
are getting adequate legal representation, the need remains, Deputy Executive
Director Robert A. Hawley said.
For every legal aid lawyer in California, there are an
estimated 9,000 clients who need their services, Flynn said. The ratio dipped
just before the financial crisis but has remained high for the last 20-plus years.
In recent years, the Administrative Office of the Courts has
helped launch 101 court self-help programs across the state to give consumers accurate,
unbiased legal information, said Bonnie Hough, managing attorney with the AOC’s
Center for Families, Children and the Courts.
In 2006, following a report from the California Commission
on Access to Justice, the state courts adopted rules and forms to help
litigants obtain limited-scope representation in any kind of civil case. But the
so-called “unbundling” of legal services has not been adopted widely enough by attorneys
to meet the need.
State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly said after the meeting that
it’s appropriate for the State Bar to look for other ways to close the justice
“We’re at a very, very early stage,” he said. “We just want
to make sure we’re ahead of that curve.”
The panel also heard testimony from attorneys who fear it
would create competition for legal work.
“You need to sell this to the membership,” said Perry L. Segal,
chair of the Law Practice Management and Technology Section of the State Bar.
Trustee Craig Holden, chairman of the working group, said he
envisioned a model where the State Bar would regulate trained legal
professionals who could provide technical advice in limited areas of the law to
serve people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
“In our experience, there [are] a significant number of
people wallowing in a sea of indecipherable legal documents,” said Trustee
Loren Kieve, a member of the working group. “This could make a difference and
take a load off our justice system.”
Mark Ressa of San Ramon, chairman of the State Bar’s Family
Law Section Executive Committee, told the panel that he understands the need to
make hiring a lawyer more affordable and less complicated. However, he
cautioned that non-lawyers who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of family
law may do more harm than good.
For example, he said he’s seen clients lose seven-figure
amounts in a divorce simply because they wrote the incorrect “date of
separation” on a divorce form. The date is important because it’s used to
calculate community property, he said.
Holden pointed out that most self-represented litigants
aren’t dealing with sums that large. Also, even attorneys who don’t practice
family law could steer clients wrong about the form.
Ressa urged the panel to look at testing potential licensees
in the area of law in which they would practice to ensure competence. He also
argued in favor of bright-line rules for what the limited licensee may do and
when they must consult a lawyer.