Thursday, October 10, 2019
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Judicial Council has expressed coolness toward, approaching outright opposition to, proposals by the State Bar’s Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services to permit laypersons to provide certain services that would now constitute the unauthorized practice of law and to possess financial interests in law firms.
Input from the policymaking body of the state’s courts came in an Oct. 1 comment, comprised of a main statement with attached elaborations. It was unveiled Tuesday in a communication via a Los Angeles County Bar Association listserv by Carolin Shining, a Woodland Hills lawyer who had heard mention of the comment at a meeting and obtained a copy of it through a Public Records Act request.
The Judicial Council’s expression of a position (a late one, given the Sept. 23 deadline for public comments) says:
“We are concerned that the Task Force is proposing to move ahead with regulatory reforms allowing for non-attorney ownership and participation in the provision of legal services based on a theory that: 1) these reforms will result in increased competition; and 2) that increased competition will result in greater access to low-cost legal services. Neither of these hypotheses has been borne out in the jurisdictions that have allowed alternative business structures to take root in the legal services industry.”
“We would encourage the Task Force to examine any potential reforms through the lens of consumer protection and enhanced access in order to ensure that we uphold the highest standards for legal accuracy in all legal materials, provide in-person assistance supported by technology, and provide qualified attorney supervision of all self-help efforts.”
Task Force’s Unawareness
The Judicial Council expressed concern that the task force appeared to be unaware of self-help centers in all of California’s 58 counties, state grants to legal aid agencies, self-help information available on the Judicial Council’s website, and free information for pro pers available from county law libraries.
The courts’ administrative body noted that it “and local courts are engaged in a multitude of other technology-based initiatives, including video chat appointments with self-help center attorneys, collaborations among multiple rural courts on workshops delivered using teleconference technology, mobile-enabled workshops, traffic court avatars, video remote interpreting pilot projects, and research into voice-to-text technology for bilingual communication,” adding:
“Courts are piloting the use of online dispute resolution services and are developing applications and other ways for litigants to easily gain information about their case file.”
The Judicial Council declared:
“Court-based self-help centers, supervised by attorneys, are the optimum way for courts to facilitate the timely and cost-effective processing of cases involving self-represented litigants which increases access to the courts and improves delivery of justice to the public.”
Public Counsel’s Stance
Aligning itself with the opposition—which includes the Los Angeles County Bar Association—is Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. It was joined in its Sept. 23 statement by five other public interest law firms including Bet Tzedek, declaring:
“Vulnerable, low-income populations in California already fall victim to the unauthorized practice of law through ‘notarios,’ ‘bankruptcy petition preparers,’ and others who claim and advertise fraudulent relationships with attorneys. The proposed regulatory changes would only further perpetuate this problem.”
The statement adds:
“Unscrupulous non-attorney consultants will give clients false hope in foreclosure cases, employment cases, civil rights cases, and a host of other matters by telling clients that they know ‘special ways of working with the federal courts’ that even attorneys don’t know. These desperate clients are often tricked into paying these consultants via a monthly, subscription service that ends up costing thousands of dollars, to file fraudulent federal cases.”
The 23-member State Bar task force, headed by Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Lee Edmon of this district’s Div. Three and comprised mainly of non-attorneys, is charged with delivering a final report to the State Bar Board of Trustees by Dec. 31.
The task force is acting in response to a 2018 study, commissioned by the State Bar, which concluded that modifying ethics rules to loosen confinement of the performance certain to the agency’s licensees would “(1) drive down costs; (2) improve access; (3) increase predictability and transparency of legal services; (4) aid the growth of new businesses; and (5) elevate the reputation of the legal profession.”
The study declares:
“Some U.S. jurisdiction needs to go first. Based on historical precedent, the most likely jurisdiction is California.”
Meanwhile, the Arizona Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services, in a 157-page report, last Friday called upon the state Supreme Court to delete the rule that bars non-lawyers from co-owning law firms. The report said:
“A sentiment that resounded within the workgroup was that lawyers have the ethical obligation to assure legal services are available to the public, and that if the rules of professional conduct stand in the way of making those services available, then the rules should be changed.”
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company