- The public is invited to weigh in on legal “paraprofessionals”
- They have been described as the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners
(Reuters) – California is on track to become the largest state to let specially trained non-lawyers offer legal advice in limited contexts, such as employment and consumer debt.
The California State Bar board on Thursday gave its preliminary blessing to a proposed “paraprofessional” program by voting to seek public comment on the plan. The public will have 110 days to weigh in on the proposal, which, if passed, could reignite the nascent movement behind legal paraprofessionals or limited-license legal professionals, as they are sometimes called.
Washington, Arizona and Utah already have similar programs or are currently piloting them. (Washington has the oldest such program, launched in 2012, although the Washington Supreme Court ruled last year to stop offering new licenses.) The programs aim to improve access to justice for people with legal needs who cannot afford a lawyer by providing a lower cost alternative. Paraprofessionals are often described as the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners.
“I think California is a big state and is putting a lot of effort into figuring out if something like this should go ahead – I think that would be a really big deal and a signal that it’s an idea. that is worth pursuing, âsaid Jason Solomon, director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School, noting that all of the existing paraprofessional legal programs are small or in their infancy.
But many lawyers spoke out against the proposal during nearly two hours of public comment to the board on Thursday, saying it could undermine public confidence in the legal profession and put clients at risk from unqualified paraprofessionals. They also challenged a provision in the proposal that would allow non-lawyers to own up to 49% of a law firm. Many have asked for more than the originally proposed 60 days to weigh on the proposal, prompting the board to adopt a 110-day comment period.
California has been playing with a legal paraprofessional program since the late 1980s, but took that effort seriously in 2018. A report on the state’s lack of justice released the following year highlighted a widespread need for it. better access to legal aid. It found that 55% of residents have encountered a legal problem in the past year, but 85% of them have received no help or inadequate help.
In March 2020, the Bar’s Board of Trustees appointed the California Paraprofessional Program Task Force and tasked it with developing recommendations for a program where specially trained non-lawyers would be able to to offer legal assistance. The task force on Thursday submitted a nearly 1,500-page report with its recommendations, which the board discussed and approved for public comment.
Under the proposal, paraprofessionals would be limited to providing services in the areas of consumer debt; maintenance of employment and income; family children and custody; and housing. They would not be eligible to provide criminal legal services except for write-offs. And they would be limited to specific functions in those areas. Within the job category, for example, paraprofessionals would be able to manage unemployment and public benefit procedures. Paraprofessionals would be allowed to appear in court under the current proposal, but would not be allowed to manage jury trials.
âThe question of whether paraprofessionals should be able to assist their clients in court has been one of the most difficult questions addressed by the [working group]”, says the report.
BARRIERS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Professor Rebecca Sandefur, who studies access to civil justice, said in an email Thursday that the success of a paraprofessional program in California depends on its design and implementation.
âIf there are a lot of initial requirements, it will be difficult for people to enter the occupation, so few will,â she wrote. âIf paraprofessionals aren’t able to provide legal advice and appear in court, they won’t be able to be of much help. “
The public will also need to be made aware of the existence of paraprofessionals and their role, she noted.
Under the California proposal, paraprofessionals would have to complete a JD or LL.M, or have completed a paralegal program or be a qualified legal documentation assistant. They are expected to take courses covering the basics of justice and ethics and legal topics specific to their areas of practice, as well as 1,000 hours of practical training, tests and a moral assessment.
The program, which the task force said would cost $ 1.65 million to launch, would be overseen by the California Supreme Court, but day-to-day administration would fall to the state bar. Paraprofessionals would fall under a disciplinary system similar to that which governs certified lawyers.
The proposal foresees that the program will take place in phases, starting with housing; collateral criminal or write-offs; and family, children and custody areas. It would start in just 10 of California’s 58 counties. The working group did not set a name for the paraprofessionals but proposed three options: limited license lawyer; Limited liability lawyer; or Limited legal counsel.
If the California State Bar passes the proposal after the public comment period, it would still require approval from the California Supreme Court and the state legislature.
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