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Panel gives nod to limited license idea

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

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.

Craig Holden
Craig Holden

The Limited License Working Group’s endorsement now goes to the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Regulation, Admissions & Discipline Oversight, which meets on July 18 in Los Angeles.

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 Gap Fund.

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 gap.

“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.