The latest justice gap report, released in April 2022, shows that 92% of the civil legal problems of low-income Americans did not receive any or enough legal help.
- LSC Gap Report
...with liberty and justice for ALL.
Every year, millions of North Carolina residents experience civil legal problems that impact their housing, safety, economic stability, and family structure. Unfortunately, many of them cannot afford representation, and they do not qualify for legal aid or pro bono services. This creates the "Access to Justice Gap," which refers to the disparity between the civil legal demands of low and middle-income Americans and the resources available to satisfy those needs.
Without access to a lawyer, North Carolina residents are left to handle their legal problems on their own. This can result in inequitable outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable members of our communities. Adverse outcomes due to lack of representation and support contribute to adverse economic and social outcomes for our communities.
Furthermore, unrepresented litigants who have no idea how to navigate civil procedure or effectively represent themselves cause bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the court system. Cases involving unrepresented parties have a greater chance of being dismissed or postponed, with no meaningful resolution for those needing one, negatively impacting the economic efficiency of our courts.
We need to change how we regulate the delivery of legal services in civil cases to serve the public better. Similar to the medical profession, we advocate for a range of regulatory reforms, including the licensing of alternative legal service providers, to narrow the civil justice access gap.
Did You Know?
LSC’s April 2022 report shows that 92% of the civil legal problems of low-income Americans did not receive any or enough legal help. Nearly 74% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the previous year. Additionlly 40%-60% of middle-income Americans cannot afford a lawyer.
$14,472 is the median annual income for a Legal Aid of North Carolina client, and 40% of their clients earn less than $10,000. Even when income requirements are met, LANC can only serve 1 in 10 households due to budgetary and human resources constraints.
In 2019, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) reported that 18.2% of the state’s population (1,859,610 people) were eligible for Legal Aid services, but a lack of resources meant that (LANC) could only help about 72,000 people that year. COVID-19 has only worsened outcomes.
Legal Aid employs 250 lawyers and 525 staff members and serves over 40,000 people each year.
There is only one legal aid attorney for every 8,000 North Carolinians eligible for legal services, compared to one private lawyer for every 367 North Carolina residents.
As of 2021, the income cutoff to receive assistance from Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) is $16,100 for one person and $33,125 for a family of four. That's minimum wage! Income eligibility thresholds are 125% of the 2021 Federal Poverty Guidelines set by the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services.
If every single one of the 1.3 million licensed lawyers in the U.S. were to take on civil legal problems, they’d each have to put in 180 pro bono hours (1.5 months) each year! The current average amount of pro bono hours is 55 among the 52% of lawyers who report hours nationally.
Justice Gap Reports
Every day, millions of low and middle-income Americans grapple with civil legal problems, which often involve basic needs like safe housing, access to health care, child custody, and protection from abuse.
Most have no help when dealing with these problems – without the legal information, advice, or representation to help them resolve their issues in the civil legal system. The 2022 Justice Gap Study from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the 2021 Civil Legal Needs Assessment published by UNC Greensboro in cooperation with the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission and NC Equal Justice Alliance provide an update concerning the justice gap among Americans and North Carolinians, respectively, exacerbated even further by the COVID-19 pandemic.
NC's State Report
Click here to view the entire report and all of the data incorporated into the executive summary.
Greatest Legal Needs
Access to justice is high stakes. It routinely determines whether basic human needs for food, clothing, and shelter will be met, and it can mean everything for a person in crisis. In North Carolina, the areas of greatest civil legal need, according to the most recent NC legal needs assessment, include:
Collection on Account
Findings and Order of Foreclosure
Permanent Civil No-Contact Order
Guardianship of the Person
North Carolina State Bar
Regulatory Subcommittee Report
Co-founders, S.M. Kernodle-Hodges and Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, presented a limited licensing proposal and were appointed to the North Carolina State Bar's Regulatory Subcommittee to study various types of regulatory reform that might improve the administration of justice in North Carolina.
Although the Regulatory Subcommittee completed its work and issued a report in January 2022 recommending several categories of regulatory reform, many members of the State Bar remain unconvinced that regulatory reform is needed. There continue to be both genuine concerns and protectionism acting as barriers to North Carolinians seeing real change through regulatory reform.
Institute for the Advancement of the
American Legal System
University of Denver
Allied Legal Professionals Project. IAALS’ Allied Legal Professionals project is working to standardize and grow these successful programs nationwide.
To broaden understanding of the existing and proposed legal paraprofessional programs across the United States and in other countries, and the relative advantages and challenges that exist within them.
To develop a national model for allied legal paraprofessionals based on best practices and research, which can be implemented in states across the country.
"We cannot volunteer ourselves across the access-to-justice gap. We have spent billions of dollars trying this approach. It hasn’t worked. And hammering away at the problem with the same tools is Einstein’s very definition of insanity. What is needed is a market-based approach that simultaneously respects and protects consumer needs."
Utah Supreme Court, Justice Constandinos "Deno" Himonas, 2015 to 2022
Pictured: Justice Constandino "Deno" Himonas and Alicia Mitchell-Mercer
Policy Alternatives That Would Increase Access to Justice
Video: Justice Constandinos "Deno" Himonas (2015-2022) explains paralegal licensing.
Policy Alternative #1
Limited licensees are not lawyers, but they can provide more affordable, limited legal advice and create legal documents for clients in certain areas of law. In some states like Arizona, they can also appear in court. If the legal issue requires work beyond the limited licensee's scope of practice, the limited licensee must advise clients to seek the advice of an attorney.
Our proposal is similar to the medical industry's licensing of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
Policy Alternative #2
Liberalizing Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL)
The North Carolina State Bar discusses various types of regulatory reform in different jurisdictions.
What constitutes the practice of law in North Carolina is defined by statute. State officials should reevaluate the current prohibitions on the practice of law and explore whether it would be necessary and appropriate to redefine what constitutes the practice of law. For example, would it be appropriate to rewrite the definition of the practice of law to permit:
nonlawyer drafting of certain documents
nonlawyer activity in certain matters (e.g. municipal or tax issues);
pro bono nonlawyer activity in certain matters;
nonlawyer partners/managers/employees of business entities to represent the entity; or
opportunities (e.g. social workers at non-profits offering legal advice, etc.).
The North Carolina State Bar discusses various types of regulatory reform in different jurisdictions.
Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute explains Utah's Regulatory Sandbox.
Policy Alternative #3
A regulatory sandbox is a mechanism by which a state permits entities to offer new and innovative ideas, methods, and models of legal practice. A regulatory sandbox might allow nonlawyer ownership and investment in law firms and/or relax some restrictions on entities offering legal services under regulatory oversight.
The development and oversight of a sandbox would be driven by just one regulatory objective set by the court: “to ensure consumers access to a well-developed, high-quality, innovative, affordable, and competitive market for legal services.” Put differently: innovation to improve access.
Policy Alternative #4
Imagine going to court without a lawyer and having no idea what to expect. Volunteer Court Navigators assist unrepresented litigants by providing general information and moral support, helping them access and complete court forms, assisting them with keeping paperwork in order, accessing interpreters and other services, and explaining what to expect and the roles of each person in court. Court Navigators also accompany unrepresented litigants into court. While these Court Navigators cannot address the court on their own, they can respond to factual questions asked by the judge.
Training Video for New York's Court Navigator Program.
Benefits of Regulatory Reform
Regulatory reform, such as limited licensing, has the ability to change lives. But not everyone agrees that it is necessary. Below we discuss some of the benefits and opposing views:
The currently unserved population would have meaningful access to legal assistance. Even a reasonable attorney’s fee is out of the reach of many North Carolinians.
Better outcomes for legal matters where food, clothing, shelter, and family stability are impacted help preserve the family structure, positively impact the economy, and provide social stability.
Advocacy and emotional support during a legal crisis where people fear the court system and may not engage otherwise.
Assistance for North Carolinians who struggle with technology, completing court forms, and understanding state and local rules.
Assistance for clients with physical disabilities and other special needs who might otherwise have difficulty accessing the court system.
Limited licensing would produce a positive economic impact. The economic impact is the cost savings to the state and local economies due to the advocacy of legal service providers.
When people receive legal services, there is less need for support from homeless shelters, temporary housing programs, government welfare programs, and community programs. Money saved can be directed to others in need.
Licensed paraprofessionals could help reduce the strain on the court system by reducing dismissals and do-overs caused by insufficient legal filings and delays and continuances due to people who don't understand state and local procedures or processes.
Having an intermediary could also lead to earlier resolutions of simple disputes between parties, which would positively impact caseflow management.
According to the Utah State Bar’s General Counsel, Scotti Hill, surveys show licensed paraprofessionals could increase an employing firm's market reach. Licensed paraprofessionals could also conduct client interviews, prepare work-product, or cover for an attorney when there is a conflict.
Licensed paraprofessionals would refer out to attorneys if the scope of the matter were too complex.
Lawyers frequently bring up the issues of public harm and we take those concerns seriously.
Studies show that the number of complaints concerning harm filed in every other jurisdiction where limited licensing exists is less than or equal to those against lawyers.
There is also no concern for harm at our federal court level in areas where non-lawyers already represent clients.
The real harm is forcing people into a position of no legal help when they could receive some help from competent paraprofessionals.
Many lawyers are concerned about competition. While we think the legal system should put the needs of the public above lawyers' economic interests, we seek to serve those who could not hire lawyers anyway because they cannot afford it. Lawyers will not lose their practices because of limited licensing. The market has room for more than one tier of service provider.
Dave Byers, Director of Arizona's AOC has stated there is no evidence that Arizona’s paraprofessional programs (including the 15-year legal document preparer program) have depressed those legal markets at all.
NC State Bar leadership and other stakeholders have expressed concerns regarding the lack of data regarding limited licensing. Will limited licensing actually help people?
Limited licensing offers excellent potential for high reward versus any risk. It is worth pursuing to obtain insight. Experiments provide meaningful data, which allow for changes to a program without high costs is still possible.
Doing nothing is a much more significant threat to our citizenry than experimenting with safeguards in place to determine how we can improve our current system.
Jim Sandman - Distinguished Lecturer and Senior Consultant to the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation, the United States’ largest funder of civil legal aid programs.
Two Lawyers Kill Legal Regulatory Reform in California (Sep. 2022)
Jim Sandman, expressed his disappointment in the California legislature for voting in favor of a bill to ban the state bar from spending funds to study regulatory sandboxes and limited licensing as potential methods of regulatory reform in the state. The bill was sponsored by two lawyers, Assemblyman Mark Stone and Senator Tom Umberg.
“The public favors the reforms the legislature shut down. Lawyers killed this, under the guise of protecting the public, based on no evidence at all. News flash: The current regulatory system harms the public. Every study of unmet civil legal needs at the national, state, and local levels reaches the same conclusion: the vast majority of people get no or inadequate help with their civil legal problems.”
Legal Professionalism Committee (2015 - 2017)
In September 2015, former Chief Justice Mark Martin convened the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ) to make recommendations for improving the administration of justice in North Carolina. The Commission was divided into five committees. Among them was the Legal Professionalism Committee, which made the following recommendations:
"The innovation center should study (and, if appropriate, propose changes to) the definition of the practice of law in North Carolina and the entities with the authority to adjust that definition. The innovation center’s proposals should account for the evolving needs and expectations of the public, as well as the impact of technology on lawrelated services. The innovation center should also study whether North Carolina should license or certify any additional categories of providers of law-related services. If the center recommends licensing or certifying any additional categories of providers, the recommendations should address how these providers should be regulated."
This information is shared for informational purposes only. This committee has not endorsed our proposal.