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‘Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals’ plan gains conceptual support from Bar’s Rules Committee

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But only if concerns expressed by the Family Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law section can be addressed

(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to more thoroughly explain the concerns the Rules Committee and some Florida Bar sections have expressed about a proposal from the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice to amend Bar rules to create “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals.”)

Amy FarriorA proposed rule that would allow “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals” to provide more lawyer-supervised civil legal services to clients has garnered conceptual support from the Bar’s Rules Committee, but only if concerns expressed by the Family Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law section can be addressed.

Some concerns include: ensuring that allowing some paralegals to perform more services would not result in high-volume “mills” churning out substandard work; that the number of AFRPs supervised by one attorney should be limited; addressing whether assistance on wills should be limited; considering whether “advanced” paralegals should be called “verified” to avoid confusion with Florida Registered Paralegals (a suggestion from the Florida Registered Paralegal Enrichment Committee); and whether advanced paralegals should be required to take half of their continuing legal education in the area where they are providing service. Rules Committee Chair Amy Farrior said other issues could also be raised.

Both of the sections wrote extensive comments about the changes to Chapter 20 of Florida Bar Rules (which govern the Florida Registered Paralegals program) proposed by the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice. Rules Committee members said they wanted those reservations addressed before final action on any amendments.

“I think the result is it’s a good idea conceptually but there still needs to be a lot more work done on these rules to take into considerations some of the good ideas put forward by RPPTL and Family Law,” said Farrior. “If there can be changes to the existing proposed rules that will go a long way to alleviate some of those concerns, then I think it’s something we might want to consider trying.

“We’re going to go back to the board and say, ‘This idea, if we can get revisions made to it, that could be a good concept.’”

The Rules Committee recommendations will go to the Bar Board of Governors. The board has been asked by the Access Commission to comment on its suggested changes to Florida Bar Rules Chapter 20, which governs the Florida Registered Paralegal program. The proposed amendments would create Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals who could do more services for clients, but would remain under lawyers’ supervision.

Any changes to Chapter 20 eventually approved by the Access Commission would go to the Supreme Court. The Board of Governors will hear the Rules Committee report at its May 15 meeting. The April 29 meeting was the Rules Committee’s third meeting on the subject, having already discussed it on March 11 and March 27.

Gordon Glover“The proposed rule will allow a paralegal registered as an AFRP to provide limited services to limited representation clients who come to the law office of the supervising or employing lawyer in matters involving family law, landlord-tenant law, guardianship law, wills, advance directives, or debt collection defense,” said access commission member and Ocala attorney Gordon Glover in a letter to the committee. “In assisting these clients, the AFRP may only help them fill out forms and provide general information. In essence, the AFRP is there to assist individuals who would otherwise be representing themselves — ultimately increasing access to civil justice.”

Michael OrrCommittee member Michael Fox Orr, who made the motion approved 8-0 by the committee, said he’s hopeful more discussion can work out the differences.

“I thought our committee did a great job of evaluating the thoughtful and detailed input from the sections,” he said. “The access commission provided us a good framework for the proposed rule and has been open to suggestions.  The more we can identify specific issues and recommend possible resolutions, the better off the proposed rule will be.”

Rules Committee member Wayne Helsby agreed, saying “I am very much in favor of finding ways to improve access to our courts for those who otherwise can’t afford it, but at the same time I think we have to be careful not to intrude into the legal rights of the people of Florida who need to have proper legal representation. I do not feel, to date, there has been enough coordination between the access commission and these sections of The Florida Bar to come up with a rule that satisfies all of these concerns. I am in the corner of having some more communication, dialogue, and vetting of this whole thing.”

Amy Hamlin, chair of the Family Law Section, said while the section continues to oppose the suggested rule, it does support many changes made after the Rules Committee’s March 11 meeting. That included that at least half of an AFRPs’ practice must be in one of the authorized areas of assistance outlined in the rule, delineating that an AFRP may help a client obtain, gather, and organize but not prepare documents (other than filling out Supreme Court-approved legal forms), the supervising attorney must be a member of The Florida Bar in good standing, the Advanced Florida Registered Paralegal must have at least one year experience in an authorized substantive area, and at least half the work of the Advanced Registered Paralegal must be in an authorized substantive area.

Another area of particular concern to the section, Hamlin said, was that the supervising attorney might not practice in the area where the AFRP was providing help; for example, a criminal defense lawyer could be supervising an AFRP providing help in family law cases.

“What was suggested is a family lawyer or someone with family law experience would supervise that family law AFRP and that certainly helps,” she said. “While we still object in general to the concept, we’re encouraged by the direction the Access to Justice Commission is going with these and in continuing to tweak the rule. For family law, we’re here and we’re happy to help.”

Because of the complexities in family law cases, the section also questioned whether AFRPs should be allowed to work in those cases.

The Access Commission changed part of the proposed rule that would have allowed authorized house counsel, foreign legal consultants, and military lawyers to supervise AFRPs, but did not accept a recommendation from the RPPTL Section that only Bar members living in Florida be allowed to supervise AFRPs.

Recommended changes from RPPTL to exclude wills, guardianship, landlord-tenant, and debt collection, and from the Family Law Section to exclude family law from authorized areas of assistance by AFRPs were not made by the Access Commission.

Addressing the RPPTL recommendation, Glover, in his memo to the Rules Committee, wrote, “The suggestion is based on a concern that wealthy clients or clients with complex matters will use an AFRP instead of a lawyer. The rule requires that the AFRP advise the limited representation client to seek a lawyer if the services are beyond the scope of those allowed by the rule. Complex cases would fall within this category. The list of practice areas is based on areas where pro se or lower income litigants need assistance. Whether wealthy clients will utilize the services of an AFRP remains to be seen. If this becomes an issue, the rule can be amended to include an income requirement. We also feel the language in the comment to the rule is sufficient.”

In a letter to the committee, RPPTL Chair Robert S. Freedman said the section’s concern — in addition to not having AFRPs work in guardianship, wills, debt collection and landlord-tenant areas — was not about wealthy clients using AFRPs instead of using lawyers for complex matters but rather clients not getting sufficient advice about those matters.

“Whether a client is wealthy or otherwise, any client should use an attorney with expertise in the given area if the matter is complex or of significance. Drafting a will is a significant matter…,” Freedman wrote in an April 21 memo. “The complexity with drafting a will, even what some may refer to as a ‘simple’ will, does not lie in the actual drafting or the use of a one-page form. The complexity lies in the rendering of legal advice, including exercising judgment based upon knowledge and experience, regarding what language to use or what alternatives may exist and understanding the unique legal circumstances of the client and intended beneficiaries.”

Freedman also said the section disagreed that if problems developed with the proposed rule, it could be changed to fix those difficulties. He argued it would be better to take more time drafting the rule to avoid problems. He also said the rule was vague about many issues and that the section agreed with the Florida Registered Paralegal Enrichment Committee that AFRPs “should be ‘certified’ in the areas in which they are allowed to provide legal advice.”

Lori Spangler, chair of the paralegal enrichment committee, wrote in a memo that the committee endorsed the proposed rule, saying the current situation is not working.

“With proper education, training, and testing requirements, the public is protected while expanding the access to civil justice in particular areas of need,” she wrote.

The committee did suggest that to avoid confusion with the current Florida Registered Paralegal program that the new category use the title “FRP-Verified Paralegal” for each of the six delineated practice areas.

The Access Commission proposed the amendments to Chapter 20 to increase access to legal services, but in a way that is under the jurisdiction of The Florida Bar and the Supreme Court since the program would be incorporated into Bar rules. The advanced paralegals would have additional training and experience and be able to provide additional services to clients, but would still operate under the control and supervision of licensed Bar members.

 

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