Provide Equal Access to Justice for North Carolina Residents

Provide Equal Access to Justice for North Carolina Residents

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North Carolina Justice for All Project started this petition to North Carolina General Assembly and

Have you or a loved one ever needed a lawyer but found you couldn't afford one?

Your Support Can Help Bridge the Access to Justice Gap

In criminal cases, legal assistance is generally a right. Americans accused of a crime are appointed legal counsel if they cannot afford it. However, there is typically no right to counsel in civil matters. As a result, many low- and moderate-income Americans, who cannot afford legal counsel, are forced to navigate the legal system alone in disputes where civil legal problems impact the most basic human needs: housing, health care, safety, economic stability, and family structure, among others.

This “justice gap” in North Carolina is significant. According to the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, “[i]n 2018, more than 2 million North Carolinians were eligible for the services of legal aid providers (i.e. with income at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level). Within this low-income population, 71% of families will experience at least one civil legal problem in a given year. Nevertheless, a staggering 86% of these legal needs will go unmet because of limited resources for civil legal aid providers. There is only one legal aid attorney for every 8,000 North Carolinians eligible for legal services, compared to one private lawyer for every 367 North Carolina residents.”

The Proposal

On Jan. 22, 2021, the NC Justice for All Project (NCJ4AP) submitted a proposal to the North Carolina State Bar and the North Carolina Supreme Court titled, “Proposal for a Limited Practice Rule to Narrow North Carolina’s Access to Justice Gap.” The proposal seeks a change to N.C.G.S. § 84 (authorized practice rules) to end the monopoly held by attorneys concerning the delivery of legal services and to allow qualified paralegals and unlicensed law school graduates to offer legal services at lower rates (the average attorney rate is $270.00/hour in North Carolina) to assist low- to moderate-income North Carolinians with certain legal matters.

The proposal was created specifically to address North Carolina’s access to justice gap. The project team consists of five North Carolina Certified Paralegals who are also in leadership with the North Carolina Bar Association, Paralegal Division (although the North Carolina Bar Association has taken no official position on this issue): 

Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, LPP, CSM, ACP, RP, NCCP, SCCP
S.M. Kernodle-Hodges, NCCP, VSP, NCCMC
Rachel Royal, NCCP
Shawana W. Almendarez, NCCP
Morag Polaski, ACP, NCCP

Issues

The most common questions the proposal has drawn from attorneys are 1) whether the proposal will harm small and solo law firms and 2) whether limited licensing will result in harm to the public. Both concerns are unwarranted as long as limited licensees are properly regulated. The number of complaints concerning harm filed in other jurisdictions, including at the US federal court level in areas where non-lawyers are permitted to represent clients, is less than or equal to claims filed against attorneys. Further, there has been no evidence that limited licensing has depressed the legal market in other state and provincial jurisdictions where limited licensing has been permitted. More importantly, affordable legal services are in the best interest of consumers, the court system, and the justice system as a whole, even if they may not be in the best economic interest of lawyers who hold the monopoly. The legal profession has a duty to serve the broader needs of society, not just its lawyers.

The legal profession may be the only profession that does not have another licensed tier of service providers to make access to services affordable. There are medical doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants in the field of medicine. There are psychiatrists, psychologists, and a number of limited license clinicians in the field of mental health. It’s time for North Carolina to provide additional affordable options to North Carolinians when they need legal assistance.

Proposal Updates

After the proposal was submitted to Mr. Warren Hodges, Chair of the Board of Paralegal Certification, the project team was informed that the State Bar had established a Subcommittee Studying Regulatory Change. The project team resubmitted the proposal to that Subcommittee for consideration on January 27, 2021.

On January 28, 2021, the Subcommittee Studying Regulatory Change acknowledged receipt of the proposal and explained that, although the proposal was initially addressed to the Board of Paralegal Certification, the proposal would be assigned to the Subcommittee for consideration. The Subcommittee is under the State Bar’s standing Issues Committee

On February 2, 2021, Rachel Royal gave a presentation on the proposal at the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission staff meeting.

On February 19, 2021, a presentation was given by S.M. Kernodle-Hodges to Chief Justice Paul Newby and the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission via Zoom.

Upcoming Presentations

On March 23, 2021, Alicia Mitchell-Mercer will give a presentation concerning the proposal for limited licensing to the North Carolina State Bar's Subcommittee Studying Regulatory Change. The presentation will be followed by a 20-minute discussion with the Subcommittee and the panel for the proposal: S.M. Kernodle-Hodges, Alicia Mitchell-Mercer, Rachel Royal, Shawana Almendarez, and Morag Polaski.

The presentation will be preceded by a presentation from Ontario, Canada. Ontario will be speaking to the North Carolina State Bar’s Subcommittee concerning its licensed paralegal program. Ontario’s long-standing program was used as a model for Arizona's paraprofessional licensing program, which begins this spring. The proposal’s project team expects Ontario to discuss the success of their program, which will be a helpful precursor to the NCJ4AP presentation.

If you are interested in watching the presentation on March 23, 2021, please make note of the following:

Date: Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Time: 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Where: Live via the North Carolina State Bar’s YouTube channel or access the link via the North Carolina State Bar Events Calendar

If you have not yet read the proposal, you can do so by accessing the proposal and related documents at this link: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/2/folders/1poUR6nSvEAsefj3HwtJmlJlGrKOjTxM3

If you would like to contact the North Carolina Justice for All Project and request an email invitation to watch the presentation or if you have other questions, you may email justiceforallproject@gmail.com. If you would like to be added to the mailing list and receive updates, please complete this form. Requests to be added to the contact list cannot be received by email. 

If you would like to contact your state Senator or Representative directly to ask them to support this petition, you can find them at the following links: NC Senators and NC Representatives

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