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Minnesota Latest State to Test Limited Legal License Program

Sept. 30, 2020, 7:28 PM

Minnesota is the latest state to test a paraprofessional limited licensing scheme to help low income residents afford legal help in civil matters.

“The need for civil legal aid, particularly in the areas of family law and landlord-tenants disputes is great, and that legal paraprofessionals can contribute to the legal needs of Minnesota citizens in these areas,” the Minnesota Supreme Court said Tuesday in authorizing a two-year pilot program to begin next March.

The decision comes as California, Arizona and Utah pursue similar access-to-justice initiatives to help the growing number of people—especially during the pandemic—who find themselves unable to afford to access legal services in civil matters. Illinois and New Mexico are considering programs as well, while Washington state announced in July plans to end its effort due to cost and lack of interest.

The Minnesota court system, like other states, is swamped with pro se litigants—or those representing themselves—and managing those cases “strains judicial resources,” Eric T. Cooperstein, a legal ethics lawyer in Minneapolis, said in an email.

“The project’s greatest challenge—and the greatest potential for success—will be in the segment of family law cases where the parties do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford to hire private attorneys,” he said.

Rebecca L. Sandefur, a professor at Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a top voice on access-to-justice issues, also underscored that there’s great need for representation in landlord-tenant and family law.

Limited license legal professionals are trained in specific areas of law and can provide more affordable legal services to clients, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to pay for legal advice.

In Minnesota, legal paraprofessionals will be supervised by an attorney in family law and landlord-tenant case types, the state high court said. It announced changes to its supervised practice rules to accommodate the program.

There are still details to iron out, Cooperstein and Sandefur both said, and a number of questions remain unanswered.

“As it stands now, there are no requirements for client disclosure or malpractice coverage,” said Cooperstein.

Sandefursaid she’s curious about what it will mean for the paralegal to be supervised. Does it mean that “the attorney is available for backup if the paralegal needs it? Or that the attorney is on site somewhere? Or that the attorney actively supervises the conduct of the work?” she asked.

The court said the program will expire on March 31, 2023, after a yet-to-be-formed standing committee presents its final status report.

Sandefur also queried what the criteria of evaluation will include. “Effectiveness of service? Consumer protection? More efficient court function? Impact on access to justice?” she asked.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com