Legislators should not shut down methods to assist Californians get authorized assist

In summary

Innovations that have emerged from reforms in Utah and Arizona offer new, affordable ways to access legal help. Yet in California, none of these pioneering approaches could so much as be discussed under Assembly Bill 2958.

By David Freeman Engstrom

David Freeman Engstrom is a lawyer, a Stanford Law School professor, co-director of the Rhode Center on the Legal Profession and a member of the California State Bar Association’s Closing the Justice Gap Working Group.

Lucy Buford Ricca, Special to Cal Matters

Lucy Buford Ricca is a lawyer, the director of policy and programs at the Rhode Center on the Legal Profession and a member of the California State Bar Association’s Closing the Justice Gap Working Group.

The end of another legislative session in Sacramento is an opportunity to reflect on questions many are asking these days: How well is our democracy working? When we elect representatives, do they pass laws that help us solve our problems?

Though we are relative newcomers to how Sacramento works, our experience on an important issue facing Californians — access to justice — raises concerns. There is still time for judiciary committee chairs Assemblymember Mark Stone and state Sen. Tom Umberg to fix a troubling bill.

Assembly Bill 2958 would harm, not help, Californians.

For the past year, we and others have been tasked by the State Bar of California trustees with designing a pilot program to spur innovation in the delivery of legal services.

Innovation is desperately needed. Studies find that 85% of Californians get no help or plainly inadequate help for their legal problems. This includes millions of middle-income residents and small businesses, not just poor people. Far too many Californians suffer when they must navigate the legal system alone on child custody issues and end-of-life planning, or square off against lawyered-up debt collectors and landlords.

The goal of a pilot program would be to create a regulatory “sandbox” in which legal-services providers can build out promising new delivery models under close scrutiny from regulators. Utah and Arizona, along with England and Wales, have adopted similar reforms, with promising results.

But last month, just days before a hearing, the judiciary committees added amendments to the state bar’s annual fee bill that would all but kill the sandbox idea. After only brief discussion, the bill passed out of committee, and it is slated to go to the floor this month.

The whole point of a sandbox is to test smart ways to relax a few of the highly restrictive rules around legal service provision, such as the rule that only lawyers can provide legal advice, or that lawyers cannot partner with other professionals. Under California rules, even lawyers are limited in their ability to try out promising new approaches that might benefit consumers.

The amended bill takes these reforms off the table, muzzling the expert judges, lawyers and academics on the working group. It says: You can consider anything you want except everything you were considering, and everything that might make a difference to everyday Californians.

We lead Stanford research teams that study the innovations that have emerged from reforms in Utah and Arizona. What has emerged? New, affordable ways to access legal help.

These innovations include free support for domestic violence victims seeking a restraining order; technology-enabled bilingual legal help for Latino small businesses; low-cost subscription services that allow small-business owners to call a lawyer with questions; and help with expungement of criminal records for people seeking a second chance. Consumer complaints have been negligible and easily addressed.

None of these pioneering approaches could so much as be discussed by the working group under the California bill’s new limits.

Many Californians, neither wealthy enough to pay a lawyer $300 an hour, nor poor enough to qualify for legal aid, would benefit from these innovative services. They are teachers, nurses and grocery store workers. They own restaurants, nail salons and landscaping businesses. All of them deserve help with issues affecting their lives and livelihoods.

They deserve legislators who want more information — not less — about policies that might help them. And most important, they deserve legislators who are on their side.

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