Crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for changes in the U.S. to close the access-to-justice gap for the poor by relaxing rules on who can provide legal services, an ethics panel said.
If you think there’s a problem now, “we haven’t seen anything yet,” London-based consultancy co-founder Alison Hook said at the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers’ annual meeting.
Hook’s firm, Hook Tangaza, advises the legal services sector. The U.K. is widely considered to be ahead of the U.S. in offering alternatives to meet legal needs.
The panel also featured a state court judge and the CEO of a nonprofit.
Its discussion was timely as Utah’s supreme court on Friday established a pilot program to help oversee and regulate the practice of law by nontraditional legal service providers.
California, Arizona, and Illinois are considering similar changes to their professional conduct rules to allow more nontraditional legal services like licensed technicians for those who can’t afford a lawyer.
Some in the legal industry are threatened by efforts to lift prohibitions in states and broaden the range of those who can provide legal services. The Big Four accountancies and other alternative legal service providers, for example, are among those looking for more direct access in the U.S.
According to the Legal Services Corporation’s 2017 Justice Gap Report, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.
The justice gap is insurmountable and growing without help from others, said panelist Utah Supreme Court Judge Deno Himonas.
We need “new tools” to tackle the problem, he said, adding that it’s “insane” to think that volunteerism will get it done.
Another problem with civil justice is that it’s biased, Himonas said.
Panelist Rohan Pavuluri, CEO of Upsolve, a nonprofit that generates Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms for free, said if you can’t afford legal fees, you can’t afford access to justice and “it’s like the rights don’t exist.”
He added that minorities are disproportionately affected because they earn less than whites.