City Bar Eyes Nonlawyer 'Aides,' 'Technicians' to Help the Poor

, New York Law Journal

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In England and Wales, nonlawyer courtroom aides called "McKenzie Friends" can appear beside litigants in some courts to give moral support, take notes and provide other "quiet" advice. In Washington state, nonlawyer "legal technicians" can inform clients of document procedures and deadlines, perform legal research and review some documents.

Now, a New York City Bar committee, recognizing the large unmet need for legal services for the poor, is proposing similar concepts. Specifically, the city bar's Committee on Professional Responsibility is recommending a role for nonlawyer courtroom aides in judicial and administrative hearings.

The recommendations, released last week, come as state court officials are studying the feasibility of allowing nonattorneys to provide legal services to poor New Yorkers in simple civil matters. A separate committee named by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) will focus on the creation of pilot programs across the state that would use nonlawyers to help poor clients in housing, elder law and consumer credit matters (NYLJ, May 29).

Read the report.

Meanwhile, the city bar's professional responsibility committee said it was making its own recommendations "in view of the growing severity of the justice gap and the need to promote a broad-based discussion of solutions within New York's organized bar."

Some lawyers have questioned whether the expanded use of nonlawyers might take work away from lawyers, said David Lewis, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson and chair of the professional responsibility committee that authored the report.

Others say nonlawyers should not be performing any legal services, Lewis said.

However, "right now the type of work we're talking about is simply not being met by the bar," Lewis said. In light of the magnitude of the unmet need, "we came to terms with the fact that we need to do something," he added.

The committee also noted some nonlawyer assistance is already provided to litigants in several forums. In landlord-tenant cases, for instance, Housing Court help desks, court sponsored courses, student volunteers and guardians ad litem are available.

The city bar committee looked to other jurisdictions for ideas.

In some U.K. courts, a "McKenzie friend" can offer discreet assistance in court to a litigant and sometimes is allowed to present evidence and argument as a lay advocate, the report said. In some cases, they can charge a fee.

What's being said

  • Douglas Kepanis

    Perhaps if law students did not have to live under a mountain of student loan debt, many more would be able to perform pro bono work or reduce their fees to accommodate lower income clientele. As tuition increases, so do legal fees so as to repay the student loans necessary to pay said tuition.

  • Well, let's see, now we have to report our pro bono efforts, and soon we'll probably have to deal with non-lawyers playing lawyers in the courtroom. As a side note, I find it interesting that in the biography of our Chief Judge JL there is no mention of his ever having been in private practice. What a surprise. So if the poor get non lawyers, and free lawyers, what do lawyers get with this administration? (Since this is not a moderated comment forum, I won't fill in the answer to that one, in the interest of decorum).

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