by Jana Jedrych
Access to legal services in California is severely lacking, with the average Californian seeking help for less than one in three legal problems per year. Aware that current regulations and practices are what’s fueling this inability to access justice, in 2020 the State Bar of California formed the Closing the Justice Gap Working Group and the Paraprofessional Program Working Group. These two Working Groups were meant to address a justice gap so profound that per the State Bar's own findings, 85% of legal problems faced by Californian residents receive no or inadequate legal help.
In order to make recommendations to the State Bar about how Californians could better access legal services, the Working Groups had two main initiatives. The Closing the Justice Gap Working Group has been considering a "regulatory sandbox," a framework which would enable the Bar and courts to test new regulations and study their effect on the accessibility of law. The second initiative looked at potentially licensing paraprofessionals (people who are trained to work in the legal field, but are not lawyers) to provide certain legal services directly to consumers. Both of these ideas would help ordinary Californians more easily access legal help. However, it would undercut the interests of some lawyers who profit from regulations which allow them a monopoly on providing any legal services. Some of those lawyers have voiced opposition to these initiatives.
The Working Groups have exhibited transparency throughout their process, allowing for all perspectives on the issue to be heard. However, not everyone is willing to hear about what improvements can be made. On June 15—just three business days before a hearing on the bill—the Senate Judiciary Committee proposed amendments to Assembly Bill No. 2958 which would put an end to the work of the Working Groups. The amendments make it impossible for the Bar to even think about changing regulations governing fee structures or the "unauthorized practice of law," preventing the Working Groups from pursuing their primary missions.
The Working Groups seek to help the ordinary consumer receive better access to legal services, but their work does not protect the monopoly on legal services that lawyers have historically enjoyed, to the detriment of consumers. It should come as no surprise that the Judiciary Committee is composed of eleven members, and eight of them are lawyers. If this bill is passed in its current form, it will have intentionally bypassed the perspectives of Californians forced to go without legal help because of lack of accessibility. The Working Groups will be unable to complete their mission of increasing access to justice. Most unfortunately, the extremely disappointing rates of access to justice in California will remain where they are. The committee should reject the proposed amendments to the bill and let the Working Group continue their effort to make legal justice more accessible for all Californians.
Responsive Law urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the amendments in a letter that can be read here.
Jana Jedrych is a Responsive Law intern.