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Zack Demeola's Comments to the California Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services

· Access to Justice

"My name is Zack DeMeola. I am a lawyer, a member of the California Bar, and a Manager at IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. IAALS is a national, independent think tank at the University of Denver committed to improving the civil justice system. This task force cited the IAALS Independent Regulator of Legal Services Policy Outline, written by Gillian Hadfield and Lucy Ricca, in its recommendations for public comment. In fact, we are a research entity that works with stakeholders and experts to develop practical solutions to tough problems.

One issue that deeply concerns us is that the legal profession is not serving the needs of the vast majority of people with legal problems. In 2015, the NCSC found that 76% of cases in state court have at least one party that is self-represented. In family cases, that number increases to upwards of 80-90% involving at least one self-represented party. Often, both parties lack the assistance of an attorney. The problem reaches up the income scale – it is not only the poorest who lack access to legal services, it is also the middle class and even small businesses. People are encountering a legal system that they perceive as unfair and out of touch – and they want and need help.

In 2016, IAALS conducted its Cases Without Council study, focusing on the experience of self-representation in family court, and more than 85% of the people we talked to in that study wanted advice or representation. But they couldn’t get the help they needed because the cost was too high and they were unclear on where to find the right resources. One participant told us, “It felt very much like wandering through a room with no lights on, and you’d bump into something, you’d ask somebody about it, and they’d shine a little flashlight and say, ‘go that way.’…Nobody ever turned the lights on in the whole room to give us an idea of exactly what it should look like.”

Well, service providers are trying to help people with their legal problems. But under current rules (and with limited exception), anyone other than a lawyer providing legal services would be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and can be subject to sanction—even if those services were actually helping, not harming, consumers. And current rules prohibit lawyers from sharing fees with others. So people with novel and potentially ground-breaking solutions cannot partner with lawyers to develop new legal services. Innovators who would otherwise focus on how to meet consumer needs are spending dollars and energy trying to maneuver around being seen as offering “legal” services or are avoiding the market altogether. One such entity recently told IAALS: “It is expensive to operate in the grey. It severely cramps our capacity to innovate and serve the market.” Without change, access to justice is in danger of becoming just a catch-phrase that has no relevance to most Americans.

That is why IAALS applauds the efforts of this task force. We understand that the materials circulated for public comment are more conceptual than concrete in terms of rule-making, and we believe the ideas embodied specifically in recommendations:

  • 1.1
  • 1.3
  • 2.0 - in particular, the hybrid model
  • 2.1
  • 2.2
  • 3.2

Are the critical first step to making legal services affordable and accessible to the people who need them. Thank you."

Zack DeMeola is a co-organizer of Denver Legal Hackers.

Follow Zack on Twitter: @z_demeola