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Legal Paraprofessional Pilot Project Sought to Improve Access to Justice

By Justice Paul C. Thissen and Judge John R. Rodenberg

Litigants going through a divorce or facing eviction are often not represented by an attorney. This lack of representation has real consequences for litigants and for the trust people have in our courts. But those litigants—and lawyers too—now have an opportunity to weigh in on a proposed two-year Pilot Project allowing legal paraprofessionals to deliver civil legal services in family law and landlord/tenant law cases under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The Pilot will test and assess whether allowing legal paraprofessionals to provide additional services will increase access to competent, quality representation for low- and modest-income Minnesota litigants, reduce court congestion, and provide opportunities for lawyers to expand their practices.

The recommendation for the new, expanded authority for legal paraprofessionals was part of a report filed on March 2, 2020, by the Implementation Committee for the Proposed Legal Paraprofessional Pilot Project. Under the recommendation, a roster of legal paraprofessionals who meet strict education, experience, and ethical requirements would be assembled to provide the services. Feedback about this proposed Pilot is being sought by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court order establishing a public comment period and hearing, which also includes a copy of the Implementation Committee’s report and recommendations, can be found at bit.ly/3flP1g5

The recommendations include clear and specific instances in which a legal paraprofessional may appear before the court, offer legal advice, or file documents on behalf of a party. Specifically, legal paraprofessionals: 

  • may provide advice to tenants and appear in court on behalf of tenants in housing disputes defined in Minnesota Statute Chapter 504B, as well as eviction expungement proceedings; 

  • may provide advice to and appear in court on behalf of clients in cases dealing with child support modifications, parenting-time disputes, paternity matters, and informal family court proceedings; 

  • may represent clients in mediations where, in the judgment of the supervising lawyer, the issues are limited to less complex matters, such as simple property divisions, parenting time, and spousal support; and

  • may prepare and file a limited and identified set of documents without the supervising attorney’s final review. (See Report Appendix G in the Committee’s report for a list of approved documents.)

The Committee also recommended that the Pilot would be limited to district courts in counties that have established a housing court or a dedicated calendar for landlord-tenant actions, and to family law cases that do not include allegations of domestic violence and/or child abuse.

The Implementation Committee for the Proposed Legal Paraprofessional Pilot Project is an outgrowth of the recommendations made by the 2017 Minnesota State Bar Association’s (MSBA) Alternative Legal Models Task Force. The work of the Committee is also in line with the recently passed American Bar Association resolution encouraging the adoption of regulatory innovations to address the access to justice crisis in the United States. The Committee was co-chaired by Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul C. Thissen and Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge John R. Rodenberg. Lawyers and paralegals from throughout Minnesota made up the membership. 

The Committee held 11 public meetings and met subsequently to summarize the work for its report. Its work included conducting a survey that was distributed online and to all licensed attorneys, district court judges, and paralegal association members in Minnesota, and yielded 579 survey responses. The Committee also convened a focus group consisting of additional attorneys and legal paraprofessionals which was held over the course of two days. Members of the Committee met with divisions of the MSBA to explain the Committee’s charge and to hear concerns, comments and other feedback from lawyers. Its work and materials can be found on the Committee’s webpage: mncourts.gov/Implementation-Committee.aspx

Any member of the public can review the report and the Supreme Court order establishing the comment period and public hearing using P-MACS, the Minnesota Appellate Courts Case Management System, under case number ADM19-8002, or find it on the Committee’s webpage. Public comments must be submitted to the Clerk of the Appellate Courts no later than July 17, 2020. The public hearing to review submitted comments will take place in the Supreme Court Capitol Courtroom on August 11, 2020, at 10 a.m. and will be livestreamed via the Minnesota Judicial Branch website.