The state Supreme Court should reconsider its 7-2 June vote that killed a program to help low- and middle-income people get legal services outside courtrooms.
The promise of the Limited Legal License Technician program ended because it was a money-loser for the Washington State Bar Association. But that’s partly because the Bar Association and the Supreme Court denied participants opportunities to thrive. The result is bad for equity in two ways. It forecloses an opportunity for people to access more affordable legal assistance and for others to pursue legal careers without high-cost law degrees.
The LLLT system enabled non-lawyers to get trained and state-certified to provide help to people trying to navigate the legal process. The court created it in 2012, drawing notice for a first-in-the-nation innovation. Since then, Utah has created a similar mechanism, and at least eight other states have explored following suit.
Although a person could become an LLLT with an associate’s degree and a modicum of further training, practice was limited to family law matters. These include divorces and child custody issues — subjects that carry intense pressure for ordinary people who need to tackle them but cannot afford attorneys. Washington has recognized a “justice gap” in civil courts for people of even moderate income going back to the Supreme Court’s 2003 study of courthouse inequity.
An empowered LLLT system should have been part of the solution. LLLTs cannot represent people in courtrooms, a well-considered restriction. But others were piled on. Regulators hobbled the program, then blamed it for limping.
LLLTs asked the Court this spring to expand into two areas — administrative hearings over public benefits including unemployment, and eviction and debt assistance — where its members could have helped with massive statewide needs. But just as it had in 2017, when LLLTs requested permission to take up elder care and health law issues, the Supreme Court said no, instead of looking toward how Utah’s broader program is working. And this year, the state Bar denied a request to help provide LLLT students family law education after a UW program ended.
Restrictions on what LLLTs can do protected the revenue streams of Washington’s attorneys. But they also limited career possibilities for the technicians coming in to help. So only a few took up the job. Fewer than 50 LLLTs statewide are active today.
This May, the State Bar Association’s treasurer wrote that this “limited historical growth and apparent interest of the public in becoming an LLLT member” had cost the Bar $1.4 million in administrative losses over the years. A month later, the high court agreed to “sunset” the program and close the door to new applicants. At least 275 people at some stage of the program’s pipeline will be allowed a chance to get in.
The cynical limitations that undermined the viability of the LLLT program squandered the time and resources well-intentioned people invested. A program to improve courthouse access should be nurtured, not unfairly constrained. This Supreme Court should acknowledge the program’s value and stay its execution order. Two chief justices — former chief Barbara Madsen and the current one, Debra Stephens — voted against ending the program and should be heeded.
As Justice Madsen wrote in her dissent, “It is not the time for closing the doors to justice but, instead, for opening them wider.” That’s true whether or not Bar Association leaders see it as bad for profits.