In January 2008, the Colorado Access to Justice Commission issued a report on availability of legal services to the poor which concluded that our state “faces a serious crisis in civil legal representation of the indigent.” Six years later when the Commission released a second report, it stated that “the crisis remains no less severe.”
Across the country, states and bar associations are looking at new tools to address the access-to-justice issue. Washington is the first state in the country to implement what it calls the Limited License Legal Technician program. The Washington LLLT is “a limited, narrowly tailored strategy designed to expand the provision of legal and law related services to members of the public in need of individualized legal assistance with non-complex legal problems.” The new license holders will only be allowed to practice in family law. The program will expand and may allow limited licenses for those who qualify in elder law, immigration, and landlord-tenant issues.
Leaders of the Washington State Bar Association told a crowd of lawyers in Denver last month that the number of unmet legal needs is rising, the number of lawyers available is falling, and that people continue to turn to online services like Legal Zoom.
California, Oregon and five other states are looking into legal technician programs. New York’s Navigators program is already allowing non-lawyers to provide legal assistance in limited circumstances. A 2014 report by the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education called for states to license “persons other than holders of a JD to deliver limited legal services.”
This spring, the Colorado Supreme Court Advisory Committee formed a subcommittee to study Washington’s program and make recommendations. The similarities between the two states suggest a likelihood of success for a similar Colorado program.
Washington is roughly the same size as Colorado, with a similar population and similar attorney numbers. Its study of the access-to-justice issue found that their state’s low-income residents encounter more than one million urgent civil legal problems every year, and 85 percent of low-income people face their legal problems without an attorney.
According to the Colorado Supreme Court, in 78 percent of family law cases, one party is not represented. In 53 percent of family law cases, both sides are self-represented. And it’s not all by choice. Of those indigent parties eligible for legal aid, fully half are turned away by service providers because of lack of funding or resources. Colorado Legal Services, the main provider of civil legal representation, has roughly 50 attorneys to serve the eligible indigent population of nearly 900,000.
Aggravating the situation is the number of attorneys who could serve this population will decline in coming years. The bulk of Colorado’s attorneys are nearing retirement age, and the state’s law-school enrollment is going down.
With the understanding that access to justice is a prerequisite to equal justice under the law, Colorado’s subcommittee will begin studying whether such a program is a good fit for the state when it meets later this month.