By Andrea Lavelle
On September 23, 2021, the State Bar Board voted after two hours of public comment, to release the California Paraprofessional Program Working Group’s (CPPWG) report and recommendations with a 110 day comment period. In 2019, the State Bar completed a study that showed an unmet need for civil legal services in California. After examining other jurisdictions’ programs, the Bar concluded that a paraprofessional program was needed to help address the justice gap, and it created the CPPWG in March 2020 to provide recommendations for the scope and implementation of the potential program. [see 25:2 CRLR 91–93]. The CPPWG then appointed subcommittees to develop recommendations regarding practice areas, the scope of services, licensing requirements, regulatory measures, disciplinary structure, and program rollout.
The report recommends paraprofessional licensure eligibility for the following groups: those who have earned a JD or LLM from an ABA or California accredited or registered law school, paralegals under Business and Professions Code section 6450(c), and legal document assistants under Business and Professions Code section 6402.1(b). It also specifies education requirements for each included practice area, and it includes broad requirements for practical training, testing, and moral character.
In recommending practice areas and scope of services, the CPPWG considered “need for legal services, . . . complexity of the level of training and experience required to competently provide the services[,] availability of existing affordable services[,] and the relative risk to legal consumers of receiving poor services, compared to receiving no legal services.” The report recommends including the following practice areas: collateral criminal; consumer debt/general civil; employment/income management; family, children and custody; and housing. Table 1 of Appendix A outlines in detail included and excluded activities by practice area for paraprofessionals, while the activities listed in Table 2 specify that paraprofessionals may practice full representation in court, excluding jury trials, except as explicitly modified. The program would be implemented in phases, with family, housing, and collateral criminal included in the initial implementation in limited counties that showed particular need for services.
The CPPWG developed recommendations for a discipline system that is a hybrid of the attorney discipline system and the discipline system of the California Department of Consumer Affairs for professional licensing boards. The report’s recommendations include guidelines for citations and fines, initial hearings, settlement conferences, appeals and stipulated discipline, and final discipline decisions. Additionally, the report recommends including two alternative discipline approaches, warning letters and mandatory fee arbitration, and it includes recommendations for which disciplinary records would be public.
The report also recommends creating a Paraprofessional Licensing and Oversight Committee, which would provide operational oversight and hear disciplinary appeals. It also details recommendations regarding the functional oversight authority of the Supreme Court, the legislature, and the Board. The CPPWG recommends that an independent organization evaluate the program between three and five years after implementation. The evaluation would consider factors such as equity and access, case outcomes and client satisfaction, legitimacy and political sustainability, affordability, and efficiency in paraprofessional training.
The public comment form may be used to submit comments from now until January 12, 2022, after which, according to a State Bar press release, the report will go to the State Bar Board of Trustees, the California Supreme Court, and the legislature for approval before implementation.