In May, Responsive Law submitted testimony to the Georgia Bar Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee opposing attempts to prohibit the use of fill-in-the-blank forms by foresters completing timber contracts.
While this may seem like an obscure issue, an adverse ruling could have a severe impact on everyday consumers, as a prohibition on these forms could open the door to prohibitions on forms and software used for residential leases, wills, uncontested divorces, and many other common transactions. Consumers with simple legal matters would be forced to hire a lawyer rather than making use of low-cost alternatives.
Fortunately, the Georgia UPL Committee agreed with us in a decision it just handed down, so consumers will remain free to use legal forms in Georgia.
At a recent hearing of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, Professor Gillian Hadfield of the University of Southern California brilliantly outlined the mathematical impossibility of relying on more legal aid lawyers and more pro bono lawyers to bridge the enormous gap in legal access for New York's poor. Her entire testimony is worth reading. (Thanks to our friend Richard Zorza for providing the link.)
Professor Hadfield calculated the number of critical legal needs faced by poor people in the state of New York, then determined how much it would cost for each of those people to receive one hour of help from a lawyer. The result was staggering: The cost of just one hour of help for each of these people would be $300 million, which is approximately one-seventh of the entire budget of the New York state judiciary. If we were to rely on pro bono lawyers to help these people, each member of the New York bar would have to provide 10 hours of free legal help just to provide one hour of service for each poor person with a legal problem. Of course, one hour of a lawyer's time isn't nearly enough to solve a person's problem with eviction, foreclosure, or loss of a job. To provide the dozens of hours of lawyer time per case that would be needed to help these people would require billions of dollars or hundreds of hours of donated service for each lawyer in the state.
Of course, the critical legal issues of the poor are only the tip of the iceberg. Not every legal matter is as immediate a crisis as the loss of a roof over one's head. Professor Hadfield points out that many ordinary legal matters, such as setting custody arrangements, or deciding whether to sign a mortgage or rental agreement, only ever come to the attention of courts and legal aid agencies once they have "erupted" into a crisis. Preventive legal care would help people with these matters, but using lawyers to provide such care would add another order of magnitude to the costs above.
Professor Hadfield's conclusion is that since there simply are not enough lawyers to handle all the legal problems of the poor, we need to make alternatives to lawyers available to people with legal problems. Professionals with training far less than a three-year law degree could provide assistance to people representing themselves in landlord-tenant matters or custody matters. After all, not every person facing one of these situations needs to engage in full-scale litigation; many just need to be told how to fill out a form, or need to have an agency's procedure explained to them. Providing affordable non-lawyer resources can prevent these problems from "erupting," and thus provides additional relief to overburdened courts and legal aid lawyers.
One area that Professor Hadfield did not address, possibly because it was the beyond the scope of the hearing, was how these calculations would apply to the middle class. With the average hour of a lawyer's time costing $200-$300, hiring a lawyer for anything more than a short representation is beyond the means of most middle-class Americans. Therefore, the systemic problems that prevent the poor from accessing the legal system apply to the middle class as well, adding an order of magnitude to the shortage of affordable legal help. Like the poor, the middle class could be helped by non-lawyer assistance. In many cases, this would not even require an expenditure of taxpayer money, since the middle class could afford to pay a reasonable amount for such assistance in the private market. All that is required is for the courts and bar associations to loosen restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law that prevent such service providers from operating. Of course, it's not easy to convince the legal cartel to release its grip, which is why Responsive Law exists in the first place.
Connecticut has enacted a new criminal law that could apply sweeping new restrictions on people's ability to receive legal assistance, with punishment ranging up to five years in prison.
The new law, which was Senate Bill 829, changes the state's relatively reasonable definition of practice of law to a much broader one that could potentially encompass a number of professional activities, including the work of doctors, financial planners, and real estate agents. It also could criminalize any non-lawyer giving advice to a friend or family member about how to fill out paperwork or how to handle any other matter involving legal rights.
The bill also raises the penalty for unauthorized practice of law from a class C misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of three months, to a class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. This is the same sentence applicable to crimes such as jury tampering and third degree burglary.
Responsive Law was the only group to testify against this proposal, speaking out on behalf of the people whose professional behavior may be criminalized and those whose access to legal information may be chilled. Our testimony on this bill can be found here.
The Florida Bar is considering a proposal to place unnecessary restrictions on lawyer referral services. Most people don't use lawyers frequently enough to know how to find one. Lawyer referral services can provide a useful way for people to shop for the lawyer who is right for them. Restrictions on innovation by lawyer referral services, particularly ones that limit how they can operate online, have the effect of limiting access to lawyers for the ordinary person.
You can read our testimony to the Florida Bar on this proposal here.
The Arizona Supreme Court is considering a rule change to make it easier for lawyers to unbundle their services. Click here to read our comments to the court in support of the proposal, and our suggestions on how to make further improvements.