Vast numbers of Americans, including a sizeable share of the population of Pennsylvania, have no access to legal help in important matters involving basic needs, such as housing, child support and custody, and public benefits. And while efforts are (always) being made to expand rights to counsel and pro bono services, it is widely agreed that, at least in the foreseeable future, there will not be enough lawyers to meet everyone’s needs at prices they can afford.
It’s also unclear, however, that everyone who confronts a legal issue requires the services of a lawyer who has been trained in all of the areas addressed in law school and on the bar examination. That’s why one effective response to the “justice gap,” according to Briana Ziff, a student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, may be to authorize trained individuals other than lawyers to provide legal assistance in specific situations, such as certain types of family-law and landlord-tenant proceedings.
In an article published in this month’s Philadelphia Lawyer, Ms. Ziff presents her research on four states — Utah, Arizona, Minnesota and Delaware — that have taken steps to do just that. “Qualified legal advocates” is Delaware’s term; while the states use different terminology and take slightly different approaches, the underlying idea — that effective legal help of certain kinds can be provided by people with varying levels of skill and training, and that not all of them have to be lawyers — is the same.
So far, according to the article, the results are encouraging: access to help has grown and the quality of services appears to be good. Given the scale of Pennsylvania’s “justice gap,” Ms. Ziff argues, it’s time to consider whether qualified legal advocates could provide a valuable service to Pennsylvanians as well.