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There are issues with how Utahns access their justice system, a Utah Supreme Court justice said.
Many people either can't afford lawyers, Deno Himonas said Monday, or simply don't want to hire one to help them navigate the court system as they file for divorce, settle debts or resolve eviction issues.
"Lawyers have been incredibly generous with their time," Himonas said. "And are trying to address [those issues] through pro bono measures. But at the end of the day, though, we need to come up with an economically viable model that will help improve access for those individuals in our civil justice system."
To that end, the Utah Supreme Court has approved the creation of a new legal profession: limited paralegal practitioners.
An LPP, or paraprofessional, will have more training and responsibilities than a normal paralegal, but is not quite a lawyer. The paraprofessional will be able to help the public in those areas where Utahns generally aren't hiring lawyers.
"They will really help [their clients] navigate the system, if you will," Himonas told the Utah Judicial Council at its monthly meeting Monday.
Himonas, who chaired a task force committee that explored whether LPPs could help Utahns have better access to courts, told the council that the committee spent the past seven months exploring other states where similar programs exist, and examining what was successful and what was not.
The task force said an LPP can be a cheaper alternative for people who can't afford a lawyer or don't want to spend their money on one.
"We recognize the valuable services that lawyers provide to their clients every day, in and out of court," the report reads. "But the data shows that, even after years of effort with pro bono and low bono programs, a large number of people do not have a lawyer to help them. ... The people facing these situations need correct information and advice. They need assistance."
An LPP will help fill in that gap assisting clients outside of the courtroom by filling out forms, representing clients in mediated negotiations or preparing settlements.
"[But] there is a limit," appellate court administrator Timothy Shea told the judicial council. "And that is essentially the courtroom door. An LPP cannot represent someone in the courtroom."
This means the paraprofessional cannot present evidence inside a courtroom, question witnesses or make arguments before a judge.
LPPs will be required to have a certain amount of education, according to the report. They will be required to have either a law degree or an associate degree with a paralegal certificate. They will also need to be experienced as a paralegal and complete further courses in their practice area.
The Utah State Bar would oversee licensing and disciplinary concerns for the newly formed program, according to the report. Spokesman Sean Toomey said Monday that the bar is pleased with how quickly the Supreme Court task force issued its report and "looks forward to considering its recommendations."
He said they have also encouraged lawyers to change the way they connect with those needing legal help, including how they "package, price and deliver their services."
The Utah Supreme Court has approved creation of the new legal profession but it will take some time to implement the program. Now that the task force has presented its findings to the Supreme Court and the judicial council, a committee will be appointed to figure out the nuts and bolts of how the program will work, including what educational requirements will be needed and what the exact limitations will be.
Creating a new career field from the ground up won't be without challenges, however.
One of the biggest hurdles may be getting Utah lawyers to support the program. The task force report said 60 percent of lawyers recently surveyed by the Utah State Bar either disagreed or "strongly disagreed" with a proposal to explore limited licenses for certain practice areas.
Other challenges the task force identified in its report is whether there will be a viable market for paraprofessionals in rural markets, and whether LPPs' rates may still be too high for some clients.
When asked what he thought would be the most challenging part of the new program, Himonas said his short answer would be: "Everything."
"It's all new," he said. "It's so new, that even identifying challenges are hard. I think the most important thing that we need to do is build in a way of measuring from the very beginning. Defining what success is and then being able to measure that."
Rick Schwermer, the assistant administrator for the Utah State Office of the Courts, said the new profession is a big deal, and is "changing the landscape of how we provide access to legal services."
"Yes, we are at the beginning of it," Schwermer said. "But we've done the most difficult part, which is getting everyone to agree that we need to do something and coming up with at least the framework for doing it."