It is frustrating that, in a country where just over half of law school graduates obtain full-time legal work, we still have a pervasive access to justice problem. Historically, the access to justice problem has been primarily seen from the low-income perspective – low-income individuals are consistently unable to access the courts despite the host of legal problems many of these individuals face. In recent years, access to justice has become a significant hurdle for the middle class as well.
The unmet civil legal needs of low and moderate income Americans is well documented and has grown worse since the economic crisis hit in 2008. Just as more people are in need of civil legal services, particularly in the area of consumer credit and housing, federal and state funding for legal services has seen significant cuts over the past few years. As a result, increasingly, litigants are representing themselves in court, leaving them overwhelmed and bewildered by the system and slowing down court operations.
It is therefore gratifying to see a number of programs spring up around the state and the country aimed at tackling the low-income access to justice problem, but expandable enough to address the middle-income access to justice gap. One of the more innovative approaches that courts and lawyers are taking is to train non-lawyers to provide certain legal-related information and assistance. Two such programs are the Illinois JusticeCorps and the Limited License Legal Technician position created by the Supreme Court of Washington.
Volunteers Reduce Bureaucratic Bewilderment
The Chicago Bar Foundation started Illinois JusticeCorps as a pilot program in the downtown Chicago Daley Center, Markham and Bloomington in 2012. Modeled after a similar program in California, volunteer college students and recent graduates are stationed in courthouses to provide information and assistance to members of the public who may be unsure about how to get their legal needs met. Now under the auspices of the Illinois Bar Foundation (IBF), with significant assistance from the Access to Justice Commission and the continued support of The Chicago Bar Foundation, the program has expanded to ten court sites throughout the state.
The JusticeCorps volunteers provide assistance as determined by local court personnel based on the unique needs and resources at a given courthouse. It may be navigational information about how to find a certain office or where to report as directed by a piece of mail they may have received. Sometimes, a volunteer may accompany an individual to a help center (most courthouses have kiosks) and help them find a form on the computer or do some minimal language interpretation. Training is extensive, provided by the IBF with assistance from local legal aid lawyers as well as training offered by court personnel and others specific to each site. Throughout the training, it is emphasized that the volunteers may provide information but not legal advice.
The program has been enthusiastically welcomed across the state. “People express appreciation at having a friendly young face they can talk to who helps them slow down a bewildering world,” said Dave Anderson, Executive Director of the IBF. Dave explained that judges report that self-represented litigants who have been helped by a JusticeCorps volunteer are better prepared mentally for the court proceedings, having had a lot of their fear and concern alleviated.
Licensed Non-Lawyers Perform Legal Services
A more radical approach to training non-lawyers to help with the access to justice issue is occurring in Washington State. In the early 2000s, the Washington Supreme Court established a Task Force on Civil Equal Justice Funding to conduct a Civil Needs Study in Washington.
The Task Force published its study in September 2003, and its findings included that the state’s most vulnerable populations were “systematically denied the ability to assert and enforce fundamental legal rights, and forced to live with the consequences.” According to the study, approximately 87 percent of low-income households in Washington experienced at least one civil legal problem during the previous year, the majority of which affected basic human needs, such as housing, family safety and public security. Additionally, low-income people faced more than 85 percent of their legal problems without help from an attorney, often because they were unaware of the laws or relief available.
Based on the results of the study, and much discussion with the Washington bar, in 2012, the Washington Supreme Court adopted a new court rule to improve access to justice. The Limited Practice Rule for Limited License Legal Technicians (“LLLT”) allows non-lawyers who satisfy certain education, financial responsibility, moral character, licensing and examination requirements to advise and assist clients with issues falling within approved practice areas of law.
Domestic relations was chosen as the first approved practice area. A collaborative effort between law schools and community colleges created a curriculum for the educational component of the LLLTs. The first handful of LLLTs are slated to graduate in the Spring of 2015.
Meanwhile, the Washington model may gain some traction in other states. Over the last year, task forces or working groups were created California, New York and Oregon to study the feasibility of creating a limited law license for non-lawyer advocates to help bridge the justice gap.
The success of these innovative approaches to deliver law-related legal services to previously un- or underserved segments of the population remains to be seen. The access to justice problem is complex and widespread. Devising solutions will require varied and innovative approaches—and openness to change.