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Bar President's Message

Richard D'Addario, Esq., President, Rhode Island Bar Association

Access to Justice

Richard P. D'Addario, Esq.
President, Rhode Island Bar Association

 "For those under the poverty level that would qualify for legal services, there will always be an issue of access to justice until we are committed to adequately funding programs."

I have had the privilege of attending a few ABA meetings recently in preparation for my year as President of our Bar, and one of the major issues being tackled in some of the seminars has been the access to justice, or should I say, the lack of access to justice in our country. This is a complex issue, one that touches all of us and is the responsibility of our Bar, our Judiciary, and our legislature. The issue of lack of justice in our legal system touches persons of all economic levels, with the exception, perhaps, of the very wealthy.

For those under the poverty level that would qualify for legal services, there will always be an issue of access to justice until we are committed to adequately funding programs such as Rhode Island Legal Services. Our Rhode Island Bar Association, in association with the Rhode Island Bar Foundation, has fully supported, and will continue to support legal services programs designed to provide representation for those qualified to receive such legal help. We need to encourage our legislators on all levels to fiscally support these programs.

I have attended seminars where discussions were held concerning the licensing of non-lawyers to perform certain “legal” tasks, such as handling simple divorce cases, evictions, other civil matters, and      similar seemingly uncomplicated or uncontested matters. Arizona has become the second state in recent months to approve non-lawyer ownership or investment in law firms, concepts that have previously faced strong opposition in the United States.

Utah and Arizona have also approved a new category of non-lawyer licenses called “legal paraprofessionals” who will be able to represent clients in court, joining a couple of other states in broadening the pool of permitted legal practitioners. Arizona has implemented rules that provide that legal paraprofessionals must meet certain educational and experience requirements, pass a professional abilities examination, and a character and fitness process. Sounds like what we all went through to become members of the Bar. The hope in these states is that legal paraprofessionals will be able to provide members of the public with more affordable legal representation.

The State of Washington, I believe, was the first to move in this direction as a pilot program but has since abandoned the concept, citing cost concerns and lack of interest.

It is our responsibility as members of the Bar to explore this issue and its related reality: why are we seeing so many pro se litigants? Is it a product of our internet culture, where everyone can go online and become an instant lawyer, ready to handle their personal legal problems? Or is it an economic issue? For example, can a couple earning a total of $80,000 combined afford the ongoing cost for an uncontested divorce even when there are no children and no assets? Can an owner of real estate that has a tenant that has not paid rent in two months afford the cost of an eviction? As a result, the question some bars are addressing is whether the licensing of non-lawyers, and the resulting regulation of this new legal services provider, is necessary to tackle the lack of justice issue.

A few thoughts: when I started practicing law in 1971, we did not have the benefit of technology to aid us in the delivery of legal services to our clients. When it was necessary to file a divorce complaint, for example, or a warranty deed for a closing, we took a piece of paper, a piece of carbon paper, and a second piece of paper, inserted them into a typewriter and hoped that we did not make a mistake requiring us to redo the whole project. Now, we can pull up a template on our computer, change the names and other details as required, and hit the print button. It is not necessary to take or mail the document to the appropriate clerk’s office; a few clicks and it is e-filed.

At this point, we are required to ask whether we have passed along these time savings to our clients. In my opinion, we owe it to ourselves to take a hard look at the fees charged for simple, uncontested matters before we embark on a program to license non-attorneys to do these tasks. At the same time, we need to make sure we are providing legal services in as efficient a way as possible to be able to charge reasonable, realistic fees to our clients.

Finally, our Judiciary must ensure that it operates in as efficient a manner as it can so that we do not waste valuable, billable time, in providing services to our clients. The recent practice of scheduling hearings for a specific time, implemented as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions, may be the answer to wasted time in the courthouse waiting for our cases to be reached. I believe we should explore this, even as we move out of the pandemic and back to normal business, hopefully in the coming future. 

If we all work together, with these goals in mind, we can go a long way to lessening the access to justice problem in our State.