More states are allowing non-lawyers to represent people in civil lawsuits as the gap in access to legal aid widens between those who can afford a lawyer and those who cannot.
While still in its early stages, such advocacy is desperately needed as states struggle to ensure residents with common legal problems aren’t left behind, lawyers said.
The cost of hiring attorneys “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 Supreme Court task force of the state in a report on legal services in Arizona in 2019.
Utah and Arizona have launched programs in recent years that allow people who have obtained a legal technician license to provide counseling in family law matters while Minnesota is on trial. Oregon plans to launch an initiative next summer, and Colorado is considering the idea.
Typically, candidates must count 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 launching a program that would allow people with some background in law to represent people in family courts, where low-income or needy litigants don’t get lawyers as defendants sit in front of criminal courts.
“It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to go through a divorce or child custody case,” said Maha Kamal, a family law attorney and co-chair of a state commission that proposed the plan. “Most lawyers don’t offer enough services at an affordable price.”
Legal service providers, also known as the nurse practitioners of the legal profession, offer a cheaper way to file documents and mediate disputes in civil court than hiring a lawyer.
“The average person just can’t afford to pay $300 to $600 an hour for a lawyer,” said AJ Torres, the administrator of the paralegal practitioner licensing program for the Utah State Bar. “It shouldn’t be a financial barrier for people to get good representation.”
Applicants typically must complete at least 1,500 hours of paralegal-related work, take courses in ethics and family law, and pass an exam before earning certification as licensed legal technicians.
Some states require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a field of law unless an applicant already has a law degree. The cost to join the programs can range from $1,000 to $15,000, but some law firms foot the bill for paralegals working for them.
With more applicants in the pipeline, Utah has 23 licensed legal service providers, Arizona has 20, and Minnesota has 18. Some states allow the providers to appear in family court to help settle divorce or child custody cases.
Some beneficiaries of the programs said they could not have solved 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 before their 20th wedding anniversary.
With little money to spend on a lawyer, Jones said, she didn’t know where to go. She eventually got in touch with a limited-licensed legal technician who guided her through the divorce proceedings, which were finalized this month.
“I don’t know what I would have done. I had no savings. I had $20 in my bank account,” said Jones, who is paying off her approximately $2,500 bill in $500 instalments.
As such programs gain popularity across the country, Washington has decided to discontinue its initiative after becoming the first state to introduce the legal service in 2012. decided in 2020 to dissolve it, citing costs and a lack of public interest.
“There is currently no proposal for the Court to reconsider that decision,” the communications staff said in a statement. “The judges are interested in what other states are doing and will review any proposals sent to them.”
A paper from Stanford Law School called Washington’s program a success last year and questioned the move. “The Supreme Court’s reasons for sunset — cost and lack of interest — sound hollow,” it said.
The three-year program, which will cost students about $15,000, will end next summer after the current pool of aspirants complete the training. The more than 70 licensed legal service providers in the state are allowed to continue to offer their services.
Charles Drake, 34, a cybersecurity analyst who has a job, said it would have been difficult to gain joint custody of his two daughters without Jeanne Barrans, a licensed legal technician. 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 that was paid over four months to a lawyer who represented him in family court.
“It was a huge waste of time,” said Drake, who grew tired of court delays and often disagreed with his lawyer’s decisions before firing him.
He soon found Barrans, a licensed legal technician who specializes in divorce and custody battles. Drake said he paid $2,000 for three months of legal services ending in the joint custody decision.
Amber Alleman, who worked as a family law paralegal for more than 20 years before becoming one of the first licensed paralegal practitioners in Utah, said several potential law firm clients walked out because they couldn’t afford basic legal services.
Some attorneys charge $400 for a one-hour consultation, she said, while charging $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 litigants in Utah represent themselves, Torres said.
While many of the programs are associated with state bars, attorneys and legal service providers have been known to clash, with some attorneys claiming they compete for the same clients. Torres said the pushback smacks of elitism.
“If you look at it from a realistic point of view, these paralegals are not taking clients from lawyers,” he said. “They give another option to people who would otherwise represent themselves.”