Responsive Law has long supported the use of competent non-lawyers to assist people who are unable to afford a lawyer. Allan Rodgers, a guest contributor to Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog, has called attention to a possible solution to this problem in his most recent post. Rodgers suggests the implementation of programs to train lay advocates who could represent clients in certain court proceedings. He praises the efforts by some states to start up programs that would train these lay advocates, but he still sees some hesitation and urges the states to make more radical changes. The current high cost of lawyers may force people to attend court hearings without any representation and without full understanding of the legal system. Lay advocates could be a step in the right direction towards fixing this problem without triggering the unauthorized practice of law.
In his blog post, Rodgers suggests that the implementation of lay advocate programs is moving slowly due to two primary concerns. First, some lawyers fear that having trained non-lawyers would threaten the legal industry. Second, some argue that lay advocates would not be able to represent their clients in court as well as a lawyer. However, Rodgers believes that neither of these concerns is well founded. In fact, he suggests that training non-lawyers could help both the legal industry and struggling clients. If more people were represented in hearings, by lay advocates or otherwise, more lawyers might need to be hired to oppose them in court. This would increase the use of lawyers, as well as non-lawyers, in the legal system. As for proper representation of clients, people represented by lay advocates have consistently fared better than those without any representation at all.
To put his ideas into action, Rodgers proposes a temporary experimental system, using volunteers who would be trained by lawyers. As this system gets rolling, a review process could also ensure that these lay advocates are representing their clients well and that everything is running smoothly. A potential group of candidates for lay advocacy work could be college graduates or law students who are looking for valuable work experience, creating a win-win scenario for both the clients and the lay advocates. New York has already taken a step in this direction with its Court Navigator program, which trains lay people to help provide legal information to unrepresented litigants in Housing Court. Other states should follow this lead and implement programs of the type that Rodgers recommends.
Mika Bray is a Responsive Law intern.