How Utah just expanded access to justice

This piece was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday.

The Utah Supreme Court just allowed for a lot more justice in the state.

Last week, the court unanimously approved a first-in-the-nation pilot program to expand access to legal help by allowing Utahns to begin offering non-traditional legal services. Now, as approved on an individual basis by the courts, non-lawyers will be able to practice law in some capacity.

The two-year pilot program is the first step toward removing government barriers and opening the legal sphere to a marketplace of ideas and expanded competition. Under this model, individuals facing the court system won’t be stuck hiring an attorney for every legal question or task they encounter. For example, under the new framework, a non-lawyer with expertise in family law could still offer a service to help families file the correct legal documentation for a small fee, before ever getting an attorney involved.

This is great news for Utahns because most of us will encounter the court system at some point in our lives — be it for a criminal charge, lawsuit, custody battle, civil dispute or any number of things. But most people have very little knowledge or experience with legal matters, so we get cornered into either using the internet in an attempt to navigate the courts alone, or, if we can afford it, hiring an attorney to help us out — and drain us dry. A knowledge gap problem comes with the first scenario, and, with the second, horribly burdensome financial costs.

Fortunately, Utah courts recognized they can’t solve this problem on their own. So now they’re allowing the market to provide solutions.

This bold decision to allow a sort of legal free market has the potential to help folks struggling with their court cases — especially poorer people who have historically suffered at the hand of the court. It’s the same reason that Illinois, California and Arizona are also looking to create their own versions of the program with court-led task forces.

The rest of the nation should follow suit with this “regulatory sandbox.”

For those who don’t know, regulatory sandboxes are a legal classification where regulators waive current laws and regulations, allowing new businesses to operate for a certain period of time without rules that would otherwise prevent them from existing. And they aren’t limited to areas of law, either — there are financial technology and insurance industries sandboxes in Utah.

The ultimate goal of this program “is to allow the court and aspiring innovators to develop new offerings that could benefit the public, validate them with the public, and understand how current regulations might need to be selectively or permanently relaxed to permit these and other innovations.”

Utah’s pilot program establishes an oversight “Innovation Office” that’ll have the power to accept eligible applicants who will be able to operate within the new unconstrained regulatory framework. Businesses who are approved will be permitted to perform nontraditional legal services without abiding by the current state laws and court rules. This experimental approach will create a safe space for entrepreneurs to offer fair and safe legal services. At the end of the two-year pilot phase, the court will evaluate the effectiveness of each service and create regulations that are applicable to the new businesses.

It’ll be up to the market to decide what the legal services will look like, but the potential is limitless. A Utah Bar report says “Sandbox participants could be an accounting firm proposing to offer legal services provided by lawyers alongside its accounting services, a technology startup using AI-enhanced software to help consumers complete legal documents (wills, trusts, incorporations, etc.), or a non-profit proposing to allow its expert paralegal staff to offer limited legal advice to clients independent of lawyer supervision.”

In a world that’s constantly changing with disruptive technology and new industries altering the way we live our lives, the law can’t afford to stand in the way of innovation. And in the meantime, it’s critical that every state expand options for people, poor and rich alike, to fairly access the court system. By letting the market do just that, Utah gave its citizens exactly what we needed. We can only hope the rest of this nation is next up.