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Mass. must be creative in helping poor residents with civil cases

At least in civil cases, Massachusetts may never be able to provide enough full-fledged lawyers to help people who lack the means to pay for representation. In criminal matters, the state has a constitutional obligation to make sure indigent defendants have lawyers. But on a host of civil matters — from divorces and custody cases to foreclosures and evictions — low-income people come into contact with the legal system without the assistance they need to navigate it properly. Most judges who answered a survey by a Boston Bar Association task force last year said a lack of legal representation made it harder for courts to ensure equal justice. The entire court system suffers as well; litigants who represent themselves lack the expertise to move their cases through the process in an expeditious way.

Yet while the need for more representation is evident, less clear is how best to provide it. Legal aid organizations in Massachusetts are turning away two-thirds of people qualifying for assistance in civil matters. In a recent story in the Globe Ideas section, Leon Neyfakh reported on the possibility of allowing people other than fully licensed lawyers to provide certain types of legal assistance. Despite the complexity of the legal system, certain situations are routine, requiring the completion of standard forms and compliance with straightforward procedures. Neyfakh noted a pilot program in Washington state, in which people who receive a year of training from law professors will receive “limited law licenses” and be able to handle divorces, child custody disputes, and certain other family matters — presumably at an economical rate.


Some advocates may recoil at the idea of providing representation on the cheap. Still, the Washington experiment is the legal analog of allowing nurse practitioners to swab patients’ throats and give shots without a medical doctor’s supervision — a cost-saving way for the health care system to provide uncomplicated services affordably, and a way of reserving physicians’ time and energy for more difficult matters that actually require their advanced training. People with limited legal licenses could provide a similar kind of triage.

As matters stand, the bar task force found that legal aid organizations are unable to help two-thirds of people who qualify for civil legal assistance. Even if Massachusetts delivers the additional $30 million over three years that task force members are recommending — on top of the $15 million or so a year that it already spends — low-income residents will have legal needs that go unmet. Even if the Commonwealth budgets enough to allow the hiring of dozens of additional legal aid lawyers, there are cases they still won’t have time to take.


Another way to chip away at the problem is to broaden the pool of trained people and organizations that can help. The Massachusetts legal community should identify matters that can be handled by people with more limited training, and the new Baker administration should work with the Legislature to facilitate that training.