IAALS Aims to Make Legal Help Affordable Through National Framework
Every day in the United States, thousands of people walk into a courtroom alone. Untrained in the American legal system, they’re left to face the judge, and oftentimes opposing counsel, by themselves.
“It was out of my reach to even think about hiring an attorney,” one woman told researchers at the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) as part of a 2016 report on self-representation. “It’s not really a decision, it’s a financial barrier—you can’t give what you don’t have.”
According to IAALS, a national, independent research center focused on improving and advancing excellence in the American legal system, more than 70% of family and civil law cases have at least one party that’s self-represented.
“That number is just completely unacceptable,” says Michael Houlberg, IAALS director of special projects. “The cards are completely stacked against them.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court in Washington state ordered the adoption of the limited license legal technician rule, stating that “we have a duty to ensure the public can access affordable legal and law related services, and that they are not left to fall prey to the perils of the unregulated marketplace.”
Since then, 16 states, including Colorado, have considered these measures, known as allied legal professional programs. These programs allow limited license legal technicians to assist and advise clients on matters related to family law.
In June, IAALS released a national framework for states to create this new tier of legal professionals. Traditionally, legal education has followed a well-trodden path, often holding theoretical knowledge in higher regard than practical experience.
For Houlberg, allowing allied legal professionals (ALPs), like paralegals, to practice makes the legal system more affordable. While cost depends on the state and practice area, Houlberg says, on average, attorneys charge around $300-400 an hour and typically require a $5,000 retainer.
“What we’ve seen with these allied legal professionals is that they’re charging about half [of that],” he says. “Some are also doing a sliding scale based on what the client’s finances look like.”
In its framework report, IAALS makes 18 recommendations covering titles, practice area, role and responsibilities, attorney supervision, in-court representation, training, testing, fee-sharing and regulatory requirements.
According to the report, of the five states with active programs, Arizona and Minnesota allow ALPs to provide in-court representation without an attorney present. With Arizona and Minnesota’s demonstrated success, IAALS recommends all state programs should follow suit.
To keep ALP education affordable, IAALS recommends that states provide different avenues for licensure for people with different levels of education and experience. IAALS also recommends that states consider developing a minimum competency, rather than replicating the bar exam.
While the road ahead is not without challenges, the report has proved to be a helpful resource for states participating in or considering these programs.
“There’s very little accumulated information in this area ... and that’s what’s made it so difficult for other states,” Houlberg says. “We’re not expecting every state to adopt every single recommendation, but they can look at it and be like, this is the data telling us how we can implement this. States realize this is something the legal system needs, and more specifically, the general population. We’re going to see more and more states adopting this over time.”