Would Connecticut attorneys be willing to cut their fees in half if bar associations would send business their way?
That’s a question that could be posed someday soon, as a Connecticut Judicial Branch committee considers whether the state should emulate a Washington State initiative that provides reduced-price legal help to people of moderate means.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Norko, who chairs the Judicial Branch’s Access To Justice Commission, said there is a growing need to address the large number of pro se parties who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to pay a lawyer.
He recommended last week that the commission study the Washington State program. The Moderate Means Program uses law students from Washington’s three law schools and attorneys recruited through bar associations to provide low-cost legal help.
“We think it’s important to examine, whether something like that could be added in Connecticut,” Norko said.
Under the program created in Washington State to reduce pro se litigants, attorneys provide legal representation to clients of middle-range incomes — from $46,000 to $92,000 for a family of four — for 25 percent to 75 percent less than typical fees.
Joan Fairbanks, the Access to Justice Board manager in Washington, worked on the feasibility study, launched about five years ago, that resulted in the creation of the program. A year ago in June, the program began referring attorneys to potential clients.
That study found 75 percent of the state’s moderate-income households, which are defined as those earning two to four times the federal poverty level, needed a lawyer for a civil case in the course of a year, but went to court without one. “The need was there and there was support from the bar to get the program running,” Fairbanks said.
A key component that made the program possible was the “free labor” of volunteer law students, who could work to screen applicants, she said. After years of meetings to discuss the proposal, the biggest obstacle was funding for administrative costs.
That money — $500,000 for this year — was eventually secured through the state bar association.
Catherine Brown, who is the supervising attorney for the program at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, worked for the Washington State Bar Association when the program was launched.
She explained that the state bar funds pays for one part-time lawyer at each of the three law schools, who supervise the students doing the screening work. The students interview people who apply for assistance, either on the phone or in person. If the request for legal assistance is approved based on family income and the nature of the case, the students refer the person to the state bar association. The bar, in turn, taps one of the 350 lawyers who have signed up to perform discounted work.
For now, the program handles only family law, consumer law and housing cases.
“The students at each school conduct fairly comprehensive interviews with the callers,” Brown said.
As an incentive, the state offers free continuing legal education courses to the lawyers who participate in providing low-cost representation, the state offers free CLE training. “It’s going well, we are still learning how to best run the program,” she said.
Steve Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, supports any idea that improves access to legal services.
The challenge for people with modest means is there are a lot of very poor people who can’t afford to pay anything for a lawyer, he said. Those people are the first priorities for pro bono and legal aid efforts.
“What that leaves us with are people who are not really poor and also not really rich and they can afford to pay something for a lawyer but they can’t afford to pay much,” he said. The challenge, then, “is what do you do to provide access for those folks?”
Citing the Washington approach, he said: “Maybe we can set up with more programs connected to law schools and with lawyers who are just starting out, looking to start a practice and maybe willing to take a case for someone who can pay can’t afford to pay a lot.”
Not everyone is receptive to the idea.
Cathy Mohan, a partner at McCarter & English and treasurer of the firm, serves on the Judicial Branch’s Pro Bono Committee chaired by Superior Court Judge William H. Bright Jr. She said the issue has caused some tension in early discussions with bar members. The concern, said Mohan, is whether a program to provide low-cost legal help might take cause potential business away from smaller firms that might otherwise collect full fees from moderate-income clients.
Then again, she note, those are the very type of people who are flooding the courts and representing themselves “because they can’t afford a lawyer and they can’t get free legal help either.”
Norko said his commission will address this issue when it meets again in December.•