As recently as 2017, 86 percent of litigants in civil cases received inadequate or no legal help, according to one study. That fact didn’t come as a surprise to those who are trying to close the nation’s justice gap.
In one attempt to close it, Washington became the first state to allow specially trained paralegals to help people without lawyers fill out paperwork and answer questions about legal procedures. The state’s Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) Program is now five years old, and this fall NCSC will start evaluating it. Other states, including Utah, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona and New York, are starting or have started similar programs, and many more states are eager to learn if these programs can effectively help large numbers of people who can’t afford lawyers.
Washington’s program and others like it “would be a radical expansion of what it means as far as who can provide legal services,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, a principal court research consultant who is leading the study.
NCSC’s evaluation, funded by SJI, will include a focus group of some of Washington’s 40 or so current LLLTs, a survey of lawyers, judges, LLLTs and clients, and a comparison of the outcome of cases with and without LLLT participation. The goal of the 18-month review, which will start in October, will be to determine if LLLTs are adequately trained, if they’re meeting the needs of their clients, and if they earn enough money to do these jobs full time.
This isn’t the first time NCSC has reviewed the program, which was created by Washington’s state courts and its bar association. NCSC and the American Bar Foundation conducted a preliminary evaluation in 2016 and produced a report in 2017.
While many states are eager to learn from Washington’s program, a few are already moving forward. Last year, Utah approved a new class of legal professionals called licensed paralegal practitioners. LLPs, as they’re called, will be permitted to help litigants in a wide array of cases, including separation, divorce, domestic abuse, stalking, name changing, custody and support, forcible entry, and debt-collection matters that don’t exceed $11,000 – Utah’s statutory limit for small claims cases.