As I’ve already mentioned in this blog, one of the most exciting parts about beginning my term as BBA President has been the opportunity to meet with leaders of the courts and discuss current topics of concern for the bench and the bar. The chief judges and justices have all expressed the desire to continue to work closely with the BBA on matters of mutual interest.
It’s no surprise that one of those matters is access to justice, a major area of focus for both the courts and the BBA. We of course plan to maintain the momentum from the release of “Investing in Justice,” our task force report on civil legal aid, but there are many other steps to take in the meantime. One subject that has come up repeatedly in my meetings with court leaders is Limited Assistance Representation, its place in the courts, and its potential expansion.
Limited Assistance Representation (or LAR) is currently available to litigants in the Massachusetts Probate & Family Court, Land Court, Housing Court, District Court, and Boston Municipal Court. Although many people are unaware of its existence, LAR has the potential to offer great benefits to litigants who would otherwise be handling their legal matters pro se. When using LAR, an attorney and client decide, before any legal work has been started, what portion of the case each will be responsible for and what sort of fee arrangement might be appropriate. This way, instead of navigating the legal system entirely on their own, self-represented litigants have some support in the more complex aspects of their individual cases. In some situations, litigants can seek LAR for reduced fee, or even occasionally on a pro bono basis.
LAR allows lawyers at all stages of their careers to get involved in cases that truly need the guidance of someone familiar with the legal system, but without committing to the full case, which could take up a great deal of time and require services beyond what the client can afford. It’s a way for experienced attorneys to support the cause of access to justice, and also gives newer attorneys who are not yet established a chance to gain some practical legal experience. After a specialized training session on how to approach these cases and work with clients on just a single or limited portion of the case, attorneys can manage different portions of multiple cases and charge for the assistance they provide, which is beneficial to the participating attorneys and also makes more affordable legal services available to litigants.
In this way, we see LAR as one of the potential methods to bridge the gap between attorneys seeking work and individuals who need legal services. Let me put this in perspective: in 2012, a briefing paper by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission found that approximately 75% of litigants with a case in the Housing Court were self-represented; broken down further, almost 95% of those defending a case in that court were self-represented. Those numbers have not decreased over the past couple of years, and that is troubling. The glut of pro se litigants in this court and others needs to be alleviated in order for the courts to operate more efficiently in the service of justice.
The BBA is constantly exploring ways to improve access to justice in our state. To that end, the BBA is pleased to offer LAR training and serve as a resource for attorneys seeking LAR certification. In the comings months, the BBA will continue to consider the role that LAR and other methods of improving access to justice can play in better meeting the needs of our courts and the litigants who appear before them. This is an ongoing effort, and one which I hope we can continue to count on the legal community to support.