More states are allowing non-lawyers to represent people in civil cases as the access to an attorney gap widens between those who can afford attorneys and those who cannot.
Although still in its infancy, such advocacy is desperately needed as states struggle to ensure residents with common legal issues are not left behind, attorneys have said.
The cost of hiring lawyers “has risen since the 1970s, and many individual litigants have been forced to forego professional legal services and either represent themselves or ignore their legal problems”, wrote a state Supreme Court task force in a report on the law. services in Arizona in 2019.
Utah and Arizona have launched programs in recent years that allow people who have obtained paralegal licenses to provide advice in family law cases, while Minnesota is in the pilot phase. Oregon plans to launch an initiative next summer, and Colorado is considering the idea.
Typically, applicants must complete a certain number of hours of legal training and document preparation before they can become licensed providers, a profession whose name varies from state to state.
In Colorado, the state Supreme Court is considering starting a program that would allow people with some legal training to represent people in family court, where low-income or indigent litigants don’t have lawyers. because the defendants are before a criminal court.
“It could cost tens of thousands of dollars to go through a divorce or a custody case,” said Maha Kamal, a family law attorney and co-chair of a state committee that proposed the plan. “Most lawyers don’t offer enough services at an affordable cost.”
Sometimes referred to as the legal industry’s nurse practitioners, legal service providers offer a cheaper way to file documents and settle disputes in civil court than hiring an attorney.
“The average person just can’t afford to pay $300 to $600 an hour for a lawyer,” said AJ Torres, the administrator of the Certified Paralegal Program for the State Bar of the State. Utah. “It shouldn’t be a financial barrier for people to get good representation.”
Applicants typically must complete at least 1,500 hours of paralegal work, complete ethics and family law courses, and pass an exam before becoming certified paralegals.
Some states require an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in a law-related field, unless the candidate already has a JD. Program participation costs can range from $1,000 to $15,000, but some law firms foot the bill for the paralegals who work for them.
With more applicants in the pipeline, Utah has 23 licensed legal providers, Arizona 20, and Minnesota 18. Some states allow providers to appear in family court to help settle divorce or custody cases. of children.
Some program beneficiaries said they could not have overcome their legal problems without the help of affordable providers.
Jasmine Jones, 49, of Spokane, Washington, said her husband filed for divorce on Valentine’s Day this year, just two months shy of their 20th wedding anniversary.
With little money to spend on a lawyer, Jones said, she didn’t know where to turn. She eventually got in touch with a limited-licensed paralegal who walked her through the divorce process, which was finalized this month.
“I don’t know what I would have done. I had no savings. There was $20 in my bank account,” said Jones, who pays her bill for about $2,500 in $500 installments.
As such programs grow in popularity across the country, Washington decided to end its initiative after becoming the first state to introduce the legal department in 2012. The state Supreme Court decided in 2020 to disband it. , citing costs and a lack of public interest. .
“There are currently no proposals before the Court to reconsider this decision,” the communications staff said in a statement. “The judges are interested in what other states are doing and will consider any submissions sent to them.”
A Stanford Law School article last year called the Washington program a success and questioned that decision. “The Supreme Court’s reasons for the sunset — cost and lack of interest — ring hollow,” he said.
The three-year program, which costs students around $15,000, will end next summer after the current pool of aspirants completes their training. The state’s more than 70 licensed legal providers will be allowed to continue offering their services.
Charles Drake, 34, a cybersecurity analyst between jobs, said getting joint custody of his two daughters would have been difficult without Jeanne Barrans, a licensed paralegal. His ex-wife filed for full custody last year after they split in 2016.
“I was in a crisis situation, so I thought I had to hire an expensive lawyer,” said Drake, of Bellingham, Washington.
He took out a $23,000 personal loan which he spent over four months with an attorney who represented him in family court.
“It was a big waste of time,” said Drake, who was fed up with court delays and often disagreed with his attorney’s decisions before firing him.
Soon, he found Barrans, a limited licensed paralegal specializing in divorce and custody battles. Drake said he paid $2,000 for three months of legal services that ended in the joint custody decision.
Amber Alleman, who spent more than 20 years as a family law paralegal before becoming one of the first licensed paralegals in Utah, said several potential law firm clients have walked away because ‘they couldn’t afford basic legal services.
Some attorneys charge $400 for an hour-long consultation, she said, while she charges $100 for the same service.
“They just wanted an hour to find out what their rights were,” she said of her clients. “They just needed help.”
With few low-cost options, about 70% of family court litigants in Utah are self-representing, Torres said.
Although many programs are associated with state bar associations, attorneys and legal providers have been known to clash, with some attorneys claiming they are competing for the same clients. Torres said the pushback smacks of elitism.
“If you look at it realistically, these paralegals don’t take clients from lawyers,” he said. “They provide another option for people who would otherwise represent themselves.”