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Board’s Rules Committee studies “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals” proposal

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Photo of Gordon GloverLawyers worried that “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals” would improperly advise clients about complex family law, will, or other issues. Paralegals were concerned the “advanced” label was too broad.

There was agreement about the need for more help for people with legal problems who cannot afford lawyers.

The venue was the March 11 meeting of the Board of Governors Rules Committee to review a rule amendment being considered by the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice’s Civil Justice’s Referral and Assistance Committee. That amendment would create an “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegal” category in Chapter 20 of Bar rules, which governs the Florida Registered Paralegal program.

Bar President John Stewart noted that the Access Commission had asked for the Board of Governors input on the amendment, and in turn he asked the Rules Committee to take a look and hear from interested parties after objections were raised by the Family Law, Real Property, Probate and Trust Law, Elder, and Public Interest Law sections. The committee took no votes but will meet again before reporting to the Board of Governors at its May meeting.

“I think what we can do to be helpful to the Access Commission is say, ‘Yes, there’s a way we can find to approve this rule, but here are the items that need to be addressed,’ or, ‘There’s no way they will ever approve the rule,’” Stewart said. “I think the idea is to give them constructive criticism…to help them move this matter forward if they choose.”

Access Commission member and former Young Lawyers Division President Gordon Glover said the commission is considering several alternatives to expand legal services to the 80 to 85 percent of the population that has civil legal problems and cannot afford to hire attorneys. One way to address part of that need, he said, was a version of the Washington state’s limited license legal technician who can assist clients in family law matters without being supervised by an attorney.

Because the commission wanted to retain any program within Bar and Supreme Court overview, it chose to recommend amending the current Chapter 20 of Bar rules to expand what an “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegal” would be able to do under the supervision of a lawyer, Glover said.

Basically, the change would allow those advanced paralegals, who would have to have additional training and experience, to provide “general information to unrepresented clients and help them fill out forms,” while remaining under the supervision of a Bar member, he said. The original proposal would have allowed the advanced paralegals to accompany clients to court, but not address the judge. Glover said that has been dropped.

The “Advanced Florida Registered Paralegals” would be able to provide assistance in family, landlord/tenant defense, guardianship, wills, advance directives, and debt collection cases, areas where the commission saw the most need, he said.

“At the end of the day, we feel this is a good starting point for this concept,” Glover said. “It keeps the Advanced Florida Registered Paralegal under the realm of the Bar. They’re working under the supervision of an attorney. It keeps us in our current framework.”

The proposal ran into a blizzard of reservations.

Diane Kerrigan, a family court magistrate, said family law matters are frequently complex and even paralegals with advanced training could cause irreparable harm to clients.

“People think they get justice if they get access. It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “These people believe that because they filled out a form…and filed it with the clerk, they are going to get the relief they seek. Filling out a form is not going to deliver justice to them.”

She said possible solutions would be increasing pro bono standards, including raising the $350 aspirational donation when a lawyer does not directly provide pro bono, and establishing standards for judges to help meet the needs of pro se litigants appearing before them.

Family Section Chair Amy Hamlin said the section’s Rules and Forms Committee and Executive Council unanimously voted against the proposal, and the section’s concerns were echoed in comments from the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section.

“We have calls every day from people who are looking for lawyers and can’t afford our hourly rates,” Hamlin said. “There is an absolute need, but I’m not sure this rule as written will deliver the services they are looking for.”

Rules Committee member Wayne Smith, who is the Board of Governors’ liaison to the Florida Registered Paralegal Enrichment Committee, said that committee’s members had several responses.

“Number one, they raised the question that once you eliminate the ability to be in a courtroom or anywhere near the courtroom or are required to be under the direct supervision of a lawyer, how is it different from the Florida Registered Paralegal program that is in place?” he said.

A second concern is although the new classification would be labeled as “advanced,” those paralegals would be limited to certain practice areas, and paralegals who do not work in the amendments’ specified areas would be unable to get the advanced designation.

Smith said an alternate proposal was to have something akin to the lawyer certification program.

“Maybe we consider losing the ‘Advanced Florida Registered Paralegal’ and come up with [another designation that is tied to a practice area] and have with that some extra testing and education requirements that would lead to that paralegal having some enhanced skills in that particular area,” he said.

Board of Governors member Laird Lile said he was concerned how much lawyer supervision would be required by the proposed amendments.

“My understanding is I could be sitting in the south of France and supervising 500 legal assistants around the state of Florida, and if those clients wanted to come see the lawyer, there isn’t any guarantee they could easily do that,” he said. “One of the solutions might be to think in terms of some availability requirement.”

Glover welcomed the input. He said the proposed amendments define lawyers who can supervise advanced paralegals, and supervising lawyers would face liability issues if they are negligent.

“These are individuals who are being unrepresented, and they can’t afford the current rate of what lawyers currently charge. We’re trying to focus on those individuals,” Glover said. “In our opinion, if there are countless paralegals who have training and experience, and who are under the supervision of an attorney providing these services…I feel we are doing a service in addressing that access gap….”

“We’re not trying to take away lawyers’ clients or have nonlawyers provide legal services that would compete or take away work from the 105,000 or 110,000 lawyers who are currently in Florida. The status quo does not work. We feel this is one of the many, many things that we can do to help bridge that gap to legal services….“We need to do something.”

Rules Committee Chair Amy Farrior said the panel will have at least one more meeting before reporting to the Board of Governors at its May meeting.

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