The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission hopes changing the rules on attorneys taking a small part of a client’s case, instead of the whole thing, will give Arkansans wider access to legal counsel.
Amendments related to limited-scope representation in the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure are before the Arkansas Supreme Court. The changes would provide clarity to attorneys who want to handle a portion of a legal dispute rather than the entire case, said Amy Johnson, executive director of the commission.
“That would give attorneys some more flexibility to do kind of a la carte type legal service,” Johnson said. “There’s definitely a demand for it.”
As a general rule, lawyers sign on to cases, not merely parts of cases, said Joshua Silverstein, a law professor at the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“Adopting these changes will bring about numerous significant benefits at virtually no cost,” he said in an email to the Arkansas Supreme Court. “In particular, the amendments will critically increase the provision of professional legal services to Arkansans who currently cannot afford an attorney.”
The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, which works to ensure legal services for all Arkansans, has spent years researching the proposed amendments, according to its website.
Limited scope representation is permitted and has been allowed, Johnson said. “It was just one line of a rule that said an attorney may limit the scope of his or her representation of a client if the client gives informed consent and if it’s reasonable under the circumstance,” Johnson said. “And that was it.”
The amendment would clarify issues such as providing drafting help to a person who is representing himself in court.
“Arkansas is the most underserved state in the country when it comes to access to attorneys,” Johnson said. Arkansas has a population of about 3 million, but there are only about 3,000 practicing attorneys who are able to take a case for a fee, she said.
“We have a big challenge there,” she said. “In terms of affordable legal services, most people of ordinary means cannot afford prevailing rates that attorneys charge for full-service work.” Instead, they go online for legal forms, and “fly-by-night outfits will have stuff that does not meet the legal requirements,” Johnson said. “They pay money and end up not being able to get their issue resolved.”
She said the limited service wouldn’t be used for complex cases such as bankruptcies or capital murder.
“It’s really intended primarily for matters where somebody really could handle it themselves, but they need an attorney to draft a document for them or an attorney to coach them on how to present their case in court,” Johnson said.
Most people try to represent themselves on domestic relations-related cases, probate or housing matters.
Instead of spending money on online documents, pro se plaintiffs could hire an attorney to help prepare them, which would help generate business for attorneys in Arkansas, Johnson said.
The proposed changes have broad support, according to comments submitted to the Arkansas Supreme Court and obtained by Arkansas Business.
Circuit Judge Teresa French of McGehee supports the changes. Her comments noted many more cases of self-representation clogging the dockets.
“Quite frequently it is a relatively simple matter that becomes very complicated because of improper document preparation and filing,” she wrote. “These litigants must have affordable legal representation in order to get the help they need.”
Jessie Wallace Burchfield, the director of the law library at the Bowen School, also supports the changes. She said in her comments that every workday, members of the public come to the law library to search for legal information.
“Many of these individuals are attempting self-representation and would benefit greatly from even a brief consultation with an attorney,” Burchfield said. “A few of them might be able to afford an attorney under the traditional hourly billing model or a flat fee rate, but most would not be able to hire an attorney.”
She also said the amendment would allow attorneys who struggle to attract enough business to support themselves with the unbundled work.
“I don’t expect these rule changes to miraculously ‘fix everything’ when it comes to access to justice in our state, but they are an important step in the right direction,” Burchfield said.
The Arkansas Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling on the amendments in a few months, Johnson said.