April 11, 2006
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ADOPTS RULES TO IMPROVE
ACCESS TO AFFORDABLE LEGAL ASSISTANCE
CONCORD---The New Hampshire Supreme Court has amended court rules to clear the way for consumers who want to hire a lawyer on a limited basis to help them in a civil case. The new procedures for “unbundled” legal services are effective throughout the state court system on July 1, 2006.
Approval of the amended rules is part of an accelerated effort by the Supreme Court to address the need for low cost legal services for the poor, and for the growing number of pro se litigants who come to court on their own because they can’t afford a lawyer. Limited representation rules authorize a lawyer to carry out a designated task for clients who might otherwise handle the matter themselves.
“Court procedures can be complicated and daunting for citizens who come to our courts without any legal help at all,” Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. said. “Limited help from a lawyer, at an affordable price, will make an important difference for those citizens by making the justice system more accessible to all, not just to those who can afford to pay,” Broderick said.
“We recognize that lawyers add great value to the system and the unbundling rules will allow the courts to take advantage of that while also making it possible for citizens to afford legal representation on critical issues in the life of their cases,” Broderick said.
Prior to the rule changes, lawyers who appeared for a client in court were required to remain on the case until completion, unless the court released them from that obligation.
Nationwide, court systems have increasingly looked toward limited legal representation as an important resource for consumers who cannot afford a lawyer, or for those who want advice, coaching or document preparation on a limited basis. According to the American Bar Association, New Hampshire joins Utah, Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Maine in developing comprehensive procedures, for lawyers and clients, to permit and regulate delivery of limited legal services.
A 2004 Supreme Court Task Force report on self-representation found that there is at least one pro se party in 85 percent of all civil cases in the district courts, and in 48 percent of all Superior Court cases. Both sides appear without a lawyer in 38 percent of probate cases, and there is at least one pro se party in close to 70 percent of domestic relations cases in the superior court. Following a recommendation from the pro se task force, the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Rules began consideration of revised rules for limited legal representation to specify how those services could be delivered and to clarify professional conduct rules for lawyers who provide those services.
“By unbundling legal services, states are trying to develop a new, easier and more affordable way to provide legal services to those who need it but can’t afford it, and to those who, for whatever reason, choose not to have an attorney for a whole proceeding,” said Keene lawyer John C. Norton, Chair of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Pro Bono Legal Referral Services and a member of the Bar Ethics Committee. Both of those groups, with the support of Bar leadership, offered revisions to proposed rules that were under consideration by the Advisory Rules Committee. The Advisory Rules Committee accepted those revisions then made final recommendations to the Supreme Court. After receiving public comment, the Supreme Court adopted the new rules with further revisions.
Under the new rules, both the lawyer and client must file a “Consent to Limited Representation Form” with the court which states the specific matter the lawyer will handle. The revised rules provide that a lawyer will automatically be released from any further participation in a case once that specific matter is completed and the lawyer files a notice of withdrawal. A sample consent form is included in the court order adopting the rules.
The Bar Association is holding a continuing education session for lawyers on limited legal services on May 31. In the meantime, Norton said, Pro Bono Services and the Bar will explore ways to provide contact information to consumers about lawyers who are willing to offer limited legal services. Norton and Virginia A. Martin, the New Hampshire Bar's associate executive director for legal services, recently presented a workshop on expanding access to justice through "unbundled" legal services at the American Bar Association's "Equal Justice Conference" in Philadelphia.
Approval of revised rules for limited legal services is one of several actions the Supreme Court has taken recently to improve access to justice: