Increasing Access to Justice Through Expanded “Roles Beyond Lawyers”: Preliminary Evaluation And Classification Frameworks

Daily around the country, thousands of people arrive at court not only without a lawyer to represent them but without an understanding of where to go, what to do, or what will happen while they are there. People are particularly likely to appear without attorney representation, or as “self-represented litigants,” in evictions, family and domestic matters, and debt collection cases.

The American Bar Foundation and the National Center for State Courts have released the first product from a joint evaluation research project investigating “roles beyond lawyers.” Funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, the project investigates a key emerging strategy for responding to the access to justice crisis: a growing number of experiments involving new roles for individuals who are now authorized to provide certain specific services traditionally supplied only by lawyers. Such initiatives provide a range of services to litigants appearing without attorneys, sometimes called “self-represented litigants,” from information to moral support to legal advice. This first report presents initial versions of conceptual frameworks for understanding and evaluating the effectiveness and sustainability of these programs.

The paper has presented two frameworks for understanding the functioning and impacts of roles beyond lawyers: new roles for individuals who are now authorized to provide certain specific services traditionally supplied only by lawyers.

In the United States today, access to justice experiences a renaissance (Albiston and Sandefur 2013). The developments appear in many arenas. For example, the US Department of Justice now hosts an Access to Justice Initiative, founded in 2010 to “help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status” (Department of Justice 2015). The National Science Foundation, a principal federal funder of basic science research, released a “Dear Colleague” letter calling specifically for research proposals investigating fundamental questions in the study of civil justice (National Science Foundation 2013). The Legal Services Corporation, the central federal funder of civil legal aid for the indigent, has announced a goal of “100% Access”: the provision of “some form of effective assistance to 100 percent of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs” (Sandman 2014). Key to this vision is services provided through a wide range of means in addition to those from traditional full-service attorneys.

These high-level developments are paralleled on the ground. Courts, bar associations, legal aid providers, and law school clinics experiment with new services and models of service delivery. Some of these leverage available information technologies (e.g., Legal Services Corporation 2013), while others employ new ways of using human resources, including the work of nonlawyers (Chambliss 2014; Crossland and Littlewood 2014; Zorza and Udell 2013). Complementing providers’ activity, a new stream of empirical research investigates it, producing basic science as well as knowledge relevant for policy and practice. A growing body of studies includes comparative metrics for justice system performance, such as the World Justice Project (Botero and Ponce 2011) and the US-focused Justice Index (National Center for Access to Justice 2014; see generally, Davis et al. 2012); randomized controlled trials of the impact of legal information, advice and advocacy (Greiner and Pattanayak 2012; Greiner, Pattanayak and Hennessy 2013; Seron et al. 2001); observational studies of legal services production and delivery both in the US and in international perspective (e.g., Barendrecht et al. 2012; Nielsen and Albiston 2006; Sandefur 2009; Steinberg 2011); and, meta-analysis, or systematic synthesis of research literature (Sandefur 2015). A central element of this movement is the mutually enriching engagement of research and practice. In that spirit, the authors present these preliminary frameworks for understanding established and emerging Roles Beyond Lawyers, and invite comment from members of the scholarly, practice and policy communities.

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