Arizona to make legal aid more affordable
Every year, the legal system fails to deliver equal justice to the millions of low and middle income Americans who cannot afford a lawyer to help them meet their needs in civil courts, where, unlike the criminal justice system, the right to legal assistance is not guaranteed.
A 2017 study commissioned by the Legal services company (LSC) found that low-income Americans received inadequate or no help for their civil legal needs 86% of the time. The situation worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, which cost millions of people their jobs.
Pro litigants do not fare as well in court as those with legal representation. Those who fare particularly poorly include people with mental illness or other disabilities, people from unstable families or with drug addiction, victims of domestic violence, or people with limited English. .
There are strict restrictions on legal aid eligibility. For LSC scholars, the income threshold is $ 16,100 for a one-person household and $ 33,125 for a four-person household. Millions of Americans whose incomes exceed these limits, sometimes barely, cannot afford to hire a lawyer to help them.
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Navigating the complex legal system, designed by lawyers for lawyers, and browsing through tons of legal jargon are daunting tasks. Many people have no idea of ââtheir rights, let alone how to protect them. As a result, many people with valid claims may be unable to assert them or even assert them without legal representation. For them, the promise of equal justice before the law is illusory.
The American Bar Association has standards and rules governing the professional practice of law, most of which have been adopted by courts or state legislatures.
These rules and laws help protect the public from unqualified practitioners, but they also make it extremely difficult for unauthorized persons to provide legal advice or appear in court to argue on behalf of someone other than themselves. These barriers to entry limit the supply of those who wish to provide legal advice, reduce competition within the profession and artificially inflate costs for parties requiring such advice.
However, recently the Arizona Supreme Court passed new rules allowing non-lawyers to have an interest in law firms and also opened up the profession to allow qualified paraprofessionals to provide limited legal services, including negotiating with lawyers and representing clients in court.
These new business models are expected to help meet the legal needs of low- and middle-income people in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
It is not surprising that many competitive-fearful lawyers resist these efforts, even though the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly state that “the profession has a responsibility to ensure that its regulations are designed in accordance with the law. the public interest and not in the interest of self-serving concerns of the bar.
But for most low- and middle-income people, the choice is between self-advocacy, no representation or representation by a paraprofessional, not between representation by a lawyer or a paraprofessional, the first being everything. simply unaffordable.
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The District of Columbia and states such as Utah, Minnesota, and California have also taken interim steps to relax their rules about who can provide legal advice. It’s time.
In 1976, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell said: âEquality of justice under the law is not just a legend on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal in our society. This is one of the purposes for which our entire legal system exists. It is fundamental that justice be the same, in substance and in availability, regardless of economic status. “
Other states should follow Arizona’s lead to begin bridging the justice gap for those who desperately need civil legal assistance but cannot afford a lawyer. It would be a huge step forward in helping low and middle income Americans get the help they need and the equal justice they deserve.