A first-in-the-nation program designed to increase access to justice in Washington state by allowing more people to provide limited legal services will be shut down, the Washington State Supreme Court said.
In a June 5 letter to the chair of the Limited License Legal Technicians program, Chief Justice Debra L. Stephens called the initiative “innovative.” But she added that the court voted to end the program next year after considering the costs of keeping it going and the limited interest.
Legal education experts expressed concern about how the decision might affect other states considering similar programs to help bridge the justice gap, which is a “very real and devastating problem,” said Christine N. Cimini, a professor at University of Washington School of Law in Seattle whose expertise includes legal education.
Washington and other states, like California, Arizona, and Utah, have pursued similar access to justice initiatives to help the growing numbers of people who can’t access legal services in civil matters due to cost. Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico are among states working to create similar options.
Some critics of these efforts say only licensed lawyers should perform those services. Law School Admission Council President and CEO Kellye Testy had another view, saying Washington’s program is very restrictive.
It requires students to “jump through so many hoops to get licensed,” she said.
The Washington program was created in 2012 and permits participants to practice law in a limited capacity. It was licensed by the state high court to help people going through divorce and other family law matters, according to the court’s website. The LLLT board was interested in expanding into other practice areas, like eviction and debt assistance, the court said.
Cimini said for opponents of limited legal licensing, the decision provides “another reason to defeat ongoing initiatives.” But she added that supporters may find that “the narrative of the attempt in Washington will provide a road map of issues to avoid.”
State Supreme Court Justice Barbara A. Madsen issued a dissenting letter, writing that “what took over a decade of toil to create, this court erased in an afternoon.” She called the vote to end it “opaque” and said this was more than a program. It was “an independent legal license.”
“As such, it warrants the respect of time and consideration before alteration, let alone total elimination,” Madsen said.
Rebecca L. Sandefur, a professor at Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the program clearly showed that “consumers welcome legal services from sources other than lawyers and those services can be affordable, safe and effective.”
Sandefur also is a Faculty Fellow at the American Bar Foundation where she founded and leads the Access to Justice Research Initiative.
Rajeev Majumdar, president of the Washington State Bar Association Board of Governors, said the court’s decision was “no doubt very difficult to make,” but it won’t lessen the board’s commitment to finding innovative ways to close the access to justice gap in the state.
“We are constantly evaluating how to convene and support our state’s Access to Justice network in ways that make the most impact for the most people,” he said in an email.
The state supreme court said that no new technicians will be admitted after July 31, 2021, and that current legal technicians in good standing can continue to be licensed and provide services.
—With Sam Skolnik