In summary

The state bar is considering whether to disband or suspend a task force exploring how to close the justice gap for many Californians.

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By Jason Solomon, Special to CalMatters

Jason Solomon is the executive director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School.

As the economy starts to recover from the last few years of the pandemic, families and small businesses in California are struggling. And many of these challenges – with debt, housing or work – have legal dimensions. 

The problem is that only the wealthy and large businesses can afford legal help, and legal aid can only help some of the poorest Californians – typically families making less than $44,000 annually. This leaves the urgent needs of the large middle mostly unmet. 

Consider the essential workers we continue to honor through this pandemic – teachers, nurses, grocery store workers. They make too much for legal aid but not enough to afford a lawyer when they need one. So they’re often on their own in court – dealing with significant issues like debt collection, evictions or family law matters, including domestic violence. 

Why? One culprit is restrictive rules in the U.S. – including in California – that govern, and limit, who can provide legal services. Owing to these restrictions, individuals can either afford Cadillac counsel or get no help at all. Unlike in medicine where there’s a middle ground with nurse practitioners, there is no middle ground in legal services – and that means many individuals are priced out.

Worried about this calamity, in recent years the California State Bar has spearheaded a series of task forces, led by respected judges, to explore loosening the restrictions to promote innovation and increase access to justice. These changes would create the equivalent of nurse practitioners for law, and allow lawyers to partner with other professionals to build new models that serve families and small businesses. California would be following in the footsteps of Utah, Arizona and Washington, and the U.K., Australia and Canada.

But last month, the Assembly and Senate Judiciary chairs sent a letter to the state bar, calling all that into question and suggesting we shouldn’t even study the possible benefits of a new approach. Echoing points made by lawyer interest groups, the chairs criticized the promising reform efforts and said we should stick with the status quo and just license more lawyers. 

At its Jan. 20-21 meeting, the state bar will consider whether “disbanding or suspending” the Closing the Justice Gap task force is the “logical result” of the chairs’ concerns.   

This result would be devastating. For starters, it’s clear we can’t lawyer our way out of the access to justice crisis. The state bar’s own studies, and many others as well, show that millions of Californians have ummet justice needs. Even a lot more lawyers and pro bono won’t dent the problem. 

The reforms under study would also benefit the chairs’ own constituents. Assembly Judiciary Chair Mark Stone, one signatory of the letter, recently led the way in passing a law to protect student loan borrowers. It’s a laudatory effort.  But currently, 90% of those borrowers are unrepresented in California courts when sued for debt collection, according to a new study from the University of California, Irvine. Help in responding to debt-collection actions is a focus of the proposed reforms.  

Senate Judiciary Chair Tom Umberg, the other letter signatory, is a veteran and small-business owner who prides himself on supporting both groups. But in fact, veterans and small businesses are among those with significant legal problems who are underserved.  

When Utah authorized new legal providers, the reforms led to the creation of a new service to help veterans get needed benefits. It also spurred the founding of several entities that help small businesses navigate legal challenges at affordable rates. Hopefully Umberg will allow the state bar efforts to go forward, so that more California veterans and small-business owners can get affordable help. 

The Assembly and Senate Judiciary chairs have shown leadership before in making sure that legal services regulation works to benefit consumers and promote access to justice. With so many struggling, Stone and Umberg should reconsider their opposition to innovative ways to provide legal help for families and small businesses in California.   

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