SALT LAKE CITY – After hundreds waiting in line for help clearing their criminal records were turned away when the free event took place two years ago, Attorney Noella Sudbury wondered if an online program could help more at once.
Just one problem. The rules that govern the legal profession prohibited anyone or anything other than a real lawyer from providing legal advice, even on basics like filling out forms.
That changed last week when the Utah Supreme Court unanimously voted in favor of a two-year pilot program calling on technology to play a bigger role in the legal community, the first of its kind in the nation.
This means that Utahns who can't afford the help of an attorney on issues like cancellations, divorces, and collections will soon be able to consult certain non-lawyers or even new apps that are given special permission to handle their cases.
In Utah, paralegals can already advise customers with additional training. However, the new temporary changes drop the requirements that others must be legally licensed to provide legal advice, own, or invest in law firms. Previously, computer programs could create forms but could not suggest how a person should fill them out.
The measures could help address a lack of affordable options that has left thousands in the state without representation in court.
Last year, 97% of those facing debt collection cases and more than 4 in 5 who responded to divorce petitions did so without an attorney, according to data from the Utah state courts.
According to the Utah Supreme Court, the problem has reached "crisis levels" as the coronavirus pandemic has stolen jobs, made Utahns sick and burdened families. So it moved the timeline of the revision up a few months.
Individuals facing criminal prosecution have a right to a lawyer, whether or not they can afford one. However, there is no such guarantee on the civilian side.
To fill this void, attorneys have long volunteered to help low-income clients for free. But the need has far exceeded the free aid, said Deno Himonas, Utah Supreme Court Justice.
"It didn't work," Himonas said in a statement. "And solving the problem with the same tools is Einstein's definition of insanity."
It's time for a business approach, Himonas said, but not without consumer protections.
Participants will need to seek approval from a new office set up to regulate them within the state judicial system, as well as the Utah Supreme Court. They must pass a risk assessment, which they overseeing bureau routinely update and undergo secret style checks.
Fourteen have applied so far, and a handful are on their way for approval in the next few weeks. One of the slots is Sudbury's tool for free fire-fighting assistance through a partnership with the nonprofit Code for America.
"It's basically like a computer lawyer," said Sudbury. The idea is that someone visiting their website would not have advertised a lawyer in the past but would have received the same quality of advice as if they had.
Utah is not alone. The UK and Australia have welcomed similar changes. In the U.S., Arizona, California, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. similar steps. Washington, D.C. allows attorneys and non-attorneys to jointly own law firms, but they must strictly adhere to legal aid. You cannot engage in advice, financial planning, or any other service that the Utah Supreme Court provides.
Supporters say the Utah program, known as the "sandbox," is a controlled experiment that allows lawyers to do business with technology entrepreneurs or others and leverage outside investments to offer better online services in smaller chunks . They also say it removes arcane rules for lawyers to promote their services.
Previous rules prohibited such partnerships and severely restricted marketing, and exposed them to the discipline of opening doors and sending checks to anyone who refers a customer to them.
Critics say the changes could result in companies pressuring lawyers to put business interests before their clients' best interests. In addition, opponents say the measures could give an advantage to accounting firms that want to compete with the state's traditional law firms. They also claim that those without a legal license are not bound by the strict ethical standards of the legal profession.
John Lund, the former president of the Utah Bar Association, who led a working group with Himonas to investigate the changes, compared the longstanding legal requirement to a hospital where only doctors – not nurses, medical assistants, or paramedics – can treat patients.
Those he expects to use the new resources are the same ones who in the past chose to go through the process themselves. He said many gave up and put divorce, custody, evictions or employment problems on hold.
Gordon Smith, dean of Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School, said the sandpit will provide insight into the services people are requesting and how the court can best regulate them in the future.
“We're not talking about working within the system to get results. We're saying maybe the system could be better,” he said. “And maybe, instead of working for big corporations and wealthy individuals, the system could be for normal ones People work. "
Attorney Jason Velez is the CEO of a law firm that connects people to legal aid through an online platform. However, 1-Law, with offices in Utah and California, struggled to recruit web designers and developers: Velez couldn't offer them equity, while tech companies could.
"That's a big problem," he said. "Utah has a wealth of talent."
A. Jason Velez, President and CEO of 1LAW, poses for a portrait outside the 1LAW Community Response Unit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Kristist Murphy, Deseret News
If the court approves his sandpit idea, Velez can grant new hires a stake in the company and accept a financial contribution from investors. He wants to focus on helping those in debt collection cases using software that will help them figure out their options and connect them to an attorney if they have tough legal issues.
He also plans to roll into the neighborhood in what he calls a Community Response Unit to promote his company.
Utah divorce attorney Marco Brown said he was skeptical the initiative will achieve its long-term goal of linking low- and middle-income Utahns with legal aid. After the incubation period is up, Brown believes that investor-assisted services may turn into tools aimed at customers who pay well, rather than customers who need help with evictions and collections.
"The money will go to places where there is already money," Brown said.
Lien attorney Kelly Silvester agreed. He fears that investors are putting money into large law firms or companies that already have significant resources, rather than smaller or standalone companies. Silvester said he believed clients could be better served under another program that would provide open source tools to all lawyers in the state.
Elizabeth Kronk Warner, Dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law said the changes fit in with other recent initiatives at the Utah Supreme Court, such as a reinforced program that allows paralegal advice, more understandable legal forms, and an online small claims court.
She doesn't think the new changes will jeopardize the future livelihoods of her law students.
"There is more than enough work for lawyers and non-lawyers to fill this gap in access to justice," she said.
The Utah Supreme Court will allow those who have demonstrated they pose a low risk to consumers to continue operating at the end of the biennium.