Early last month, the Washington Supreme Court made a bold and powerful statement about the effects of racism in our justice system in support of those marching for equality. Yet, the very next day the court marched in the other direction when it came to remedying injustices in the delivery of legal services.
In a closed-door session, without public input or comment, the Supreme Court on June 5 voted 7-2 to dismantle the Limited Licensed Legal Technician (LLLT) professional license — the legal equivalent of the nurse practitioner license, which revolutionized access to primary medical care.
The goal of Washington’s LLLT license was simple: To get more Washingtonians better access to legal help and justice. But rather than embrace the program’s progress and promise, the court has seemingly bowed to lawyer interests and focused only on the program’s administrative cost.
Created by the Washington Supreme Court in 2012, the LLLT license was aimed at eliminating many of the inequities that people are marching for today. The court’s own 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study confirmed that almost 85% of low-income and nearly 75% of moderate-income Washingtonians cannot afford any type of legal service.
Washington state is not alone in failing to provide meaningful access to legal services. According to National Opinion Research Center, 86% of Americans living on 125% of the federal poverty standard have inadequate or no access to the civil justice system. This means millions of people of low wealth are walled off from a system that resolves tenant rights, child-custody disputes, debtor’s rights, public-health issues and welfare rights — high-impact matters that are life changing.
The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index shows that our civil justice system is rife with invidious discrimination which exacerbates the injustice that confronts people of color and members of other disadvantaged populations. And not surprisingly, research shows that people dealing with the stress of unresolved legal problems are much more likely to suffer health problems.
The LLLT program was innovative, elegant and a responsible answer to our state’s lack of equal justice. Innovative in that it created a new type of licensed legal professional authorized to handle “primary care” legal issues. Elegant in that it targeted one of the neediest areas, family law, and authorized LLLTs to perform basic services without the supervision of a lawyer, including helping clients prepare and review documents and forms, and explaining family law legal procedures. Responsible in that LLLTs had to complete an associate degree in an enhanced paralegal curriculum followed by 15 credit hours of family law training taught by a local law school, acquire 3,000 hours of experience working under a lawyer’s supervision and pass a bar-exam like test administered by the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA).
Given our state residents’ unmet need for legal assistance, it was a shock when the court announced in a seven-sentence letter it was ending the LLLT license, ostensibly due to the cost to the WSBA, which administers the license (about 1% of WSBA’s annual budget).
Amazingly, the court took this action at WSBA’s request and without holding a public hearing, offering the public the opportunity to comment, and while the National Center for State Courts was in the midst of conducting an independent review of the program’s efficacy.
In an attempt to understand their decision, one has to wonder if the court gave in to the lawyers who fought the program from its beginning over concerns it would “damage the integrity of the profession” and “take work away from lawyers.”
At a time when our nation is facing two crises — one brought on by the novel coronavirus and the other by centuries of unaddressed systemic racism — Americans of all income levels now more than ever need access to affordable legal services. From help with evictions to foreclosures, debt collection to wrongful termination, denial of benefits to discrimination, the lack of affordable legal help precludes the overwhelming majority of Washingtonians from benefiting from the very laws that were passed to protect them.
As lawyers are the only profession with the right to self-regulate, the court owes the public a re-visitation of its decision, including giving interested parties the opportunity to be heard, especially those Washingtonians who have used LLLTs and understand their power and promise.
If LLLT’s do not have the potential to address our access-to-justice problem, what does the court have in mind to address these critical needs?