A Judicial Branch work group is looking into how the state might provide low-cost legal representation for people who lack the resources to pay standard legal fees but who have too many assets to qualify for legal aid.

The Workgroup on Modest/Moderate Means was created in January at the recommendation of the Judicial Branch’s Access to Justice Program. According to Chief Justice Chase Rogers, the group’s goal is to assess “the feasibility of establishing a voluntary statewide modest means program” with the support of state bar associations and the 26,000 licensed lawyers in the state.

Comprised of nine members, the work group is co-chaired by former New Haven Legal Assistance Association director Pat Kaplan and Christopher Nelson, a partner in Nelson Votto in New Haven. Kaplan said she and Nelson are interested in gathering as much input as possible from the state’s lawyers to help them determine what recommendations to make.

At the group’s first meeting in March, Kaplan and Nelson set out the goals for a statewide modest means initiative. The program would essentially seek to provide affordable legal services for people who don’t qualify for state funded legal services, and provide jobs and training for unemployed and underemployed new lawyers who are missing out on traditional training at law firms.

The group discussed a current modest means program that is offered in New Haven by the New Haven County Bar Association. That program, the only one of its

kind in the state, provides legal services at a reduced hourly rate to people with family law, landlord tenant, employment and minor criminal cases.

Under that program, applicants pay a $25 referral fee. If they can show their income is below federal poverty guidelines, they are referred to an attorney who will consider taking their case for a reduced fee of $60 an hour. The program has been in existence for several years.

Firm Of Fellows

As part of extending a program like that one, to be administered by the Judicial Branch, the work group talked about a recent proposal by the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section.

Under the proposal, which the Judicial Branch could decide to get involved with, the bar association would screate an incubator for legal business development, and a resource center. The idea would be to build a “modest means law firm” and have young lawyers would staff the office for a three-year fellowship period.

At the end of the fellowship, the participating attorneys would go out on their own. Work group members say the important factor will be ensuring the program addresses the needs of the underserved population while making it profitable for the participants.”

That proposal, and others like it, will be discussed at future meetings of the work group.

Kaplan said the work group is conducting surveys of members of various bar associations in the state to determine where the greatest need exists for modest means legal services, and whether there is support or opposition for such a program.

If members encounter opposition to such a program, the surveys will attempt to determine why there is reluctance to accept a reduced fee structure.

The group is expected to submit a plan for creating a statewide program to the chief justice by this fall.