Top jurists favor changes in order to expand access to justice

The concept that lawyers should commit themselves to pro bono legal work for the underserved dates nearly 40 years ago to the adoption of the current American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 1983.

Several prominent jurists favor regulatory change in the legal profession to expand access to justice.

But despite decades of efforts to encourage practicing lawyers to perform a minimum of 50 pro bono hours annually to increase access to justice, the results have been less than encouraging.

“It really didn’t make any movement at all,” said Vice Chief Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer of the Arizona Supreme Court of the pro bono effort during a recent ABA discussion on regulatory change.

Timmer is part of a growing list of top jurists who favor regulatory change in the legal profession to expand access to justice. Instead of relying on pro bono work to increase legal access, for instance, regulatory changes could lead to nonlawyers handling some routine legal matters.

She and chief justices from Utah, Michigan and Texas discussed some of these changes in the inaugural Redesigning Legal Speaker Series, which is intended to provide a forum to explore the legal profession’s regulatory changes underway and the challenges they face.

Three ABA entities — the Center for Innovation, the Center for Professional Responsibility and the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services — have teamed up with the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver and Legal Hackers to organize what is planned as a quarterly series.

The debut program, “Redesigning Legal: Leading from the Bench — Expanding Access through Regulatory Innovation,” also featured Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of Texas and Chief Justice Matthew Durrant of Utah, and showcased how supreme courts in Utah and Arizona have ushered in regulatory change to expand access to justice.

In Arizona, legal paraprofessionals can now practice in four distinct areas. The state Supreme Court also eliminated model rules that prohibit the sharing of legal fees with nonlawyers.

In Utah, 23 pilot programs have been approved in the state’s seven-year “sandbox” approach, Durrant said. They range from a solo practitioner giving his sole paralegal 10% ownership in the firm to law students at Brigham Young University providing counsel to domestic violence victims.

Hecht, who is also chair of the Conference of Chief Justices, said courts are rethinking their roles because jurists realize pro bono efforts are not sufficient to provide access to the courts for many Americans.

McCormack added: “We are going to forge forward in Michigan because this is now the time in the process to try. And the big winner could be the public.”

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