For many survivors of domestic violence, trying to leave an abusive situation presents an array of legal issues, from protective orders to custody battles to housing assistance to divorce, but affordable legal help can be hard to come by.
The state of Arizona is hoping to fill that need with a pilot program that will create a new type of legal adviser: the licensed legal advocate.
As part of a program developed by students and professors at the University of Arizona, the Arizona Supreme Court
has agreed to sign off on the new licensed legal advocate program, which will run for one year, allowing advocates who go through the LLA training to give legal advice to domestic violence survivors.
“The domestic violence space makes a lot of sense for a first test case, partly because those survivors really sit as the center of the justice gap,” said Stacy Butler, the head of the University of Arizona’s Innovation for Justice Program, which spearheaded the development of the program.
In the United States, the only people who are typically allowed to provide legal advice are attorneys. While others can give people legal information, they are not allowed to suggest a course of action or provide guidance for a particular case or legal matter. In general, this is meant to protect the public from being led astray by people who are not qualified to weigh in on legal matters.
However, when trying to address the justice gap in the U.S., where the need for legal services greatly outpaces the legal help most people are able to access, some have argued that states should open the door for other legal professionals, such as paralegals, to provide advice in specific circumstances.
Arizona is not the first state to experiment with allowing nonlawyers to play a larger role in helping others navigate the legal system. In 2019, researchers at Georgetown identified 15 states that currently have “navigator” programs, in which authorized nonlawyer personnel provide assistance at the courthouse to people representing themselves.
Other states have tried different models, including Washington, which in 2012 created a limited license legal technician certification that allows nonlawyers to advise on family law matters.
In Arizona, Butler and her team — which included Jeffrey Willis, then-president of the Arizona State Bar, and Karen Adam, a retired family law judge — decided to look specifically at the legal needs of domestic violence survivors and how best to help them navigate the system.
Students in the Innovation for Justice Program started by mapping out the way the legal system is meant to work to serve domestic violence victims, and then worked with Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse in Tucson to determine how it often works in practice.
The next step for those students was collaborating with Emerge and others in the legal community to develop ways to address the roadblocks survivors typically face. They zeroed in on the lay legal advocates already working at Emerge, who are able to give information, but not advice.
“That line is tricky,” Butler said. “There were a lot of examples [where] they know what that survivor should do in that situation because they have navigated that situation with many survivors before, but they are worried about applying their own judgment.”
For instance, Butler said, advocates were wary of telling clients how to fill out certain forms for the court, even if they knew the type of information the court looks for. Advocates often erred on the side of providing less information in order to avoid crossing a line, Butler said.
Under the new pilot program scheduled to start this fall, lay legal advocates with Emerge will be able to undergo training to become licensed legal advocates, able to provide legal advice at specified points in the process.
These LLAs will be allowed to advise Emerge clients during their initial intake, guide them through the process of filling out forms, help them prepare for court, and sit next to them during court proceedings to give advice.
The students and stakeholders also considered other ideas, such as allowing LLAs to speak on victims’ behalf during hearings, but eventually settled on a more modest role.
“We dialed it back ... because there was some concern about the amount of training you need to be an in-court advocate,” Butler said.
Right now, the Arizona Supreme Court, which regulates the practice of law in the state, has agreed to allow LLAs to operate solely through Emerge for a one-year pilot program so that researchers can study its impact.
Though they will not be allowed to represent clients or advocate in court, Butler said they expect LLAs will be able to make a big impact. She also hopes that the LLA model will form a template that can be used for other legal needs and in other states.
“I hope the pilot will be successful and this will be a permanent service offered in the state, and in other states,” Butler said.
Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at email@example.com.
--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.