Salt Lake City, UT— In an historic vote, the Utah Supreme Court voted unanimously on Wednesday to authorize a pilot program to test pioneering changes to the practice of law and changes designed to address the access-to-justice crisis in America.
These changes allow individuals and entities to explore creative ways to safely allow lawyers and non-lawyers to practice law and to reduce constraints on how lawyers market and promote their services. In order to assess whether the changes are working as intended, the Supreme Court has authorized the core portions of these changes for a two-year period. At the conclusion of that time, the Supreme Court will carefully evaluate whether the program should continue. The evaluation will be based on a review of data collected from those entities and individuals participating in the program. The Supreme Court’s willingness to experiment with innovation is an important step, especially now, because the need for more affordable legal help has reached crisis levels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. Many Utahns are facing crushing challenges that require legal help, including lost jobs, bankruptcy and debt, and health and family crises. Now more than ever new legal services and providers are needed to ease this crisis of access to justice.
The Court’s Reform-leading Efforts
The Utah Supreme Court has led the way on reforming the rules governing lawyers and the practice of law to increase Utahns’ access to legal help. Over the past two years, a task force established by the Supreme Court has researched and developed a model through which new and creative legal business models, services, and providers—under careful oversight—could offer safe and innovative legal services to Utahns. The resulting proposals, set out in the Supreme Court’s Standing Order 15 and associated revisions to the Rules of Professional Conduct, establish a regulatory sandbox for non-traditional legal providers and services, including entities with non-lawyer investment or ownership. The proposal also establishes an Office of Legal Services Innovation—a new office within the Supreme Court that will assess and recommend sandbox applicants to the Court, as well as oversee those applicants that are authorized by the Court to offer legal services. The rule changes and the sandbox, which the Supreme Court authorized pursuant to its plenary and exclusive constitutional mandate to govern the practice of law, represent perhaps the most promising effort by courts to tackle the access-to-justice crisis in the last hundred years.
Taking Input from All Sources into Account
Before voting on the changes, the Utah Supreme Court provided for a lengthy ninety-day comment period. Through the comment period and extensive outreach and research efforts, the Supreme Court and its task force were able to gather and take into account input on the proposals from the public, lawyers, the Utah Bar Commission—the body directly overseeing Utah’s lawyers—and subject matter experts. As a direct result of this input, the Supreme Court made a number of important changes to the initial proposals. These changes included: (1) increasing transparency into the application and approval process, (2) adding clearer channels for complaints regarding the new legal services, (3) severely restricting any roles for disbarred or suspended lawyers and those with certain felony convictions, (4) more explicitly articulating the program’s access-to-justice goals, (5) and more clearly delineating that the program will sunset in two years absent further order of the Supreme Court.
A New Legal Frontier
Justice Deno Himonas who, along with John Lund, past-President of the Utah Bar, led the effort, summed up the need for innovative solutions in the face of America’s access-to-justice crisis as follows, “We cannot volunteer ourselves across the access-to-justice gap. We have spent billions of dollars trying this approach. It hasn’t worked. And hammering away at the problem with the same tools is Einstein’s very definition of insanity. What is needed is a market-based approach that simultaneously respects and protects consumer needs. That is the power and beauty of the Supreme Court’s rule changes and the legal regulatory sandbox.” Now, under the leadership of the Supreme Court and the Bar Commission, which will have an important role in the Innovation Office, Utah will be the first state in the nation to lay the foundation for a truly accessible and affordable, consumer-oriented legal services system.
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