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Oregon State Bar may give paralegals more authority

It has created a licensing proposal to allow some paralegals to provide counsel, assistance in place of attorneys

People facing eviction from their home or in dispute with a former spouse over support payments usually can’t afford to pay an attorney to represent them as they face such crises.

However, a proposed statewide paraprofessional licensing program created by the Oregon State Bar would allow some paralegals to provide a variety of legal services that would also include divorce, marital separation or annulment, child custody and parenting time, as well as residential landlord-tenant disputes.

Such family as well as housing legal matters are “two of the areas of law with the greatest unmet need for legal assistance in Oregon,” according to the OSB, a nongovernmental agency that regulates the practice of law in the state, and licenses and disciplines lawyers.

It’s also a way to make justice more accessible to more Oregonians: 84% of Oregonians can’t access the legal help they need, according to the OSB.

Medford City Attorney Eric Mitton explained that his department often receives requests for legal services from residents who don’t realize that his job is to legally represent city government in civil law matters, which could include the mayor, city council members, the boards, commissions and committees, its citywide operations and departments.

Because people express so much need, the city’s website features contact information for a variety of local legal resources, such as where to direct consumer complaints or seek help with landlord-tenant disputes, he said.

The OSB’s proposal to allow people to employ a licensed paralegal would result in substantially lower cost while still providing people who can’t afford an attorney with legal assistance.

It also would address a shortage of attorneys who focus on areas of law involving individuals because of the increased demand by corporate clients for attorneys, according to the OSB.

The number of people coming to court who can’t pay for the services of an attorney when they are facing eviction from their home or trying to work through child custody matters has been increasing for years, said Daniel Harris, an attorney, mediator-arbitrator and retired Jackson County Circuit Court judge.

“Some lawyers are concerned about this becoming a slippery slope because of lower fees,” Harris said. “But access to justice is so important in our country.”

Having licensed professionals who understand the legal system won’t just benefit their clients but will also “save the court system time and resources — and serve the community better,” he explained.

Harris described the creation of a licensed paralegal as similar to the position of a nurse-practitioner in the medical profession..

Among requirements proposed is for these paraprofessionals to complete a total of 1,500 hours of what the OSB describes as “substantive legal paralegal work.”

For a paralegal who intends to offer their services to family and housing clients, they will need to spend 500 of those hours on family law and 250 hours housing law. They won’t need to take a bar exam but will need to have a licensed attorney attest to their completing the focused work hours and meet other requirements, such as having malpractice insurance and adequate understanding of abuse reporting requirements and professional ethics.

Not long before Harris retired from the Jackson County Circuit Court in 2013, he remembered three mornings of family law matters coming through the court “with not one lawyer present.”

Harris, now living near Portland, is also the vice-chair of the OSB committee planning for the implementation of this statewide legal paraprofessional licensing program.

He said people going into court to work through family and housing issues without attorneys started becoming more noticeable during the 2007-08 recession and that it has continued to become more commonplace since then.

These legal paraprofessionals would be able to assist their clients to determine what they need to achieve by providing them with knowledgeable advice and a viable process for resolving such matters.

People without such legal expertise simply filling out online paperwork for court can inadvertently inconvenience and cause more trouble for themselves. Supplying inaccurate information or using the wrong form happens frequently to people who end up representing themselves in court, Harris said.

People without legal representation sometimes ask for things that aren’t relevant to their case, aren’t allowed or could hurt them because they don’t understand the legal implications of some actions. For example, they might consent to a resolution that requires them to cover the legal costs of their opponent if they end up on the losing end, he said.

Harris also noted that the current situation has affected the court system itself because it often requires more court time to reach resolutions when one or both parties involved in a case are struggling with legal rules. Judges find themselves spending significant amounts of time explaining things to people without attorneys.

This OSB committee issued its report in November and is asking for public comment about the proposal through Feb. 4, 2022, and the Oregon State Supreme Court could decide in March or April whether the program can move forward.

After final court approval, the program could begin as soon as this summer.

Three states — Utah, Arizona and Washington — have legal paraprofessional programs. California has proposed one, and Minnesota is conducting a pilot program.

The Oregon State Bar is seeking public opinion about a plan to provide a more affordable form of professional assistance to those with specific family and housing legal issues. Visit https://www.osbar.org/lp to learn more and provide your opinion about the program.