The organization representing Oregon’s attorneys is considering granting paralegals limited powers to advise and represent tenants in evictions and disputes over rental assistance in place of an attorney.
The Oregon State Bar’s board of governors is moving forward on the “paraprofessional licensing program,” which would allow paralegals to handle two main types of cases: landlord-tenant issues and certain family law cases. The plan aims to help deal with the backlog of landlord-tenant cases in courts and to broaden access to legal representation.
Proponents have likened the practice to nurse practitioners, allowing professionals with some training to provide limited services, often more quickly and efficiently than through a doctor’s office.
The Oregon State Supreme Court will make the final decision on the program, likely early next year. But the state bar is now taking public comment on the potential service.
A 2019 survey conducted by Portland State University, in partnership with several legal organizations including the Oregon Law Center, the state bar and Legal Aid Services of Oregon, showed that Oregonians living at or below the poverty line are disproportionately affected by legal problems like credit card and debt issues and landlord-tenant disputes. Those problems are also more likely to affect people of color and single parents, according to the study.
And it’s often harder for those with modest means to find help for their legal troubles.
Of more than 1,000 people surveyed for the study, about half did not know where to look for help and hadn’t heard of legal aid. Less than a quarter of those surveyed tried to get a lawyer to help them, and even fewer were successful in getting a lawyer’s help when they sought it.
State judicial records show that 83% of all parties in landlord-tenant disputes over the past five years have been unrepresented, said Kirsten Thompson, a former Washington County judge and member of the committee that’s been researching the paraprofessional licensing program. Another 71% are unrepresented in divorce cases, she said.
“This is leveling the playing field for tenants who can’t have a lawyer represent them,” Thompson said in a presentation to the state bar’s board of governors on Saturday.
Thompson said some other states are considering similar programs, and Washington already has one. “Limited License Legal Technicians” in that state can handle divorces, child custody and other family law matters.
Thompson noted that without a lawyer, things like reviewing court orders and handling settlement discussions fall to people without any legal training — those who are dealing with the legal issue.
Paralegals or others with limited legal training would be required to meet certain standards, such as having 500 hours of attorney supervision in family law, and 250 hours of supervision in landlord-tenant law, and ongoing training.
Megan Jacquot, a judge in Coos County, said during the state bar meeting that her rural area often doesn’t have enough people exclusively practicing family law and relies on attorneys traveling from Roseburg or Eugene.
Another former family court judge, Maureen McKnight of Multnomah County, said it’s hard to meet the demand for family law.
“I think this could help some people in limited situations,” she said. “I agree about not letting the perfect get in the way of the good.”
Others raised concerns about sending paralegals to handle cases without a full law degree.
“I used to be a paralegal for a long time,” said Aaron Riechenberger, an attorney who opposed the proposition. “The training requirements here are simply inadequate.”
And some said they worried the program would be a strain on paralegals as well as clients.
“We fail to see that all these burdens will fall on poor and indigent individuals,” said attorney Kay Teague, noting the populations that would likely seek those services. “They (paralegals) are limited in what they can do. It compromises the rights of poor people.”
Teague also noted that paralegals might be expected to operate at cheaper rates than attorneys while shouldering some of the same responsibilities.
The public comment period is open on the state bar’s website until at least Feb. 18, and the state Supreme Court will decide on the issue. Kateri Walsh, the state bar communications director, said the organization is hoping to hear from a variety of people other than lawyers, particularly those who have engaged with the court system.
—Jayati Ramakrishnan; 503-221-4320; [email protected]; @JRamakrishnanOR