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State Bar panel readies recommendations for filling justice gap

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Exploring a licensing program for legal technicians is among the likely recommendations of a State Bar task force that has been studying solutions to the justice gap – the gap between the need for civil legal assistance for low- and moderate-income Californians and the resources available to meet that need.

The Civil Justice Strategies Task Force met last month to discuss ideas for its final report, which is expected to be finalized next month and then go to the Board of Trustees.

Hernán Vera, a member of the board as well as the task force, said he is optimistic that a limited license certification program – particularly for family law and unlawful detainer/eviction cases – could help assist those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. A previous board working group has also endorsed the concept.

But Vera said many questions remain, including whether the bar could devise educational requirements for limited license technicians that would adequately protect the public without being so costly that a technician would charge the same amount as an attorney to represent a client. Any new legal licensing program would need to be approved by the California Supreme Court and would likely require legislative changes as well.

The task force may also recommend simplifying court processes to make the system easier to navigate. Its report may highlight what’s already working, along with ideas for expanding on those efforts. Some examples include self-help programs for litigants, legal incubators and the practice of unbundling legal services to make them more affordable.

In addition, the report may make recommendations for tackling the problem of ballooning student debt. Task force research showed that California lawyers are entering the profession owing an average of $134,000 for their undergraduate and graduate education.

Miriam Krinsky, a member of the task force as well as the board, said there are indications that financial pressures are deterring young lawyers from serving people of modest means.

Krinsky said she would like to see the board create a working group to implement a number of recommendations, which could include asking the law schools to educate prospective lawyers about the issue, creating a clearinghouse of information on debt consolidation and studying whether high debt loads are causing young lawyers to get in trouble with the discipline system.

“This needs to be the start, rather than the end of discussions on this issue,” she said.

The task force’s final meeting is set for Nov. 13 at the bar’s Los Angeles office, 845 S. Figueroa St. Task Force Chairman Luis J. Rodriguez, immediate past president of the State Bar, said following that meeting he will pull together the various recommendations for the final report.

Once the task force finalizes the report, it will be up to the Board of Trustees to determine what to do next, he said.