Courts & Corrections

Report: Vermont legal services should be more effective, affordable

Dan Richardson
Dan Richardson. Courtesy photo.
A new report from Vermont attorneys and court officials proposes improvements to the state’s judiciary system to make legal services more accessible to Vermonters.

Legal experts say Vermonters increasingly can no longer afford to hire a lawyer to write a will, fight a small claims lawsuit or go through probate court to deal with estate issues.

Officials recommend expanding the legal authority of paralegals, changing the process for consumer credit collection cases, and making other changes that would better serve the legal needs of Vermonters.

Dan Richardson, chair of the Joint Commission on the Future of Legal Services, said his profession has struggled “with how we keep up with the changes in society, changes in technology and changes in the types of problems facing the population.”

The commission was formed after Chief Justice Paul Reiber in a March 2014 speech urged his colleagues to find a way to ensure that Vermonters have access to high quality, affordable legal representation and dispute resolution services.

Reiber said in light of the stark financial realities faced by the courts, lawyers and the public, the status quo must be re-evaluated. Law school students now graduate with staggering debt that limits their options; mid-career attorneys are confronted with competition from Internet legal services; and more Vermonters than ever are representing themselves in court. Lastly, the bar and the courts have been slow to adopt technology.

The commission is made up of 30 people from different facets of the state’s legal system, and was broken up into four groups to examine four areas: legal education, court process, legal services and technology.

The report, completed in September, is the first phase of a two-year project. In the next year, Richardson said, the commission will work with the Vermont Bar Association and the three branches of state government to implement the recommendations.

One major barrier for litigants in Vermont is the cost associated with legal representation. Richardson, a former president of the Vermont Bar Association, recalled that at a recent meeting with other attorneys, one lawyer said, “If I had a problem, I couldn’t afford me.”

“Most people in the middle class and lower income cannot afford an attorney unless it’s an absolute necessity,” Richardson said.

As a result, many Vermonters end up representing themselves in court, he said.

According to a 2012 analysis by Judge Amy Davenport of the cases in the civil division of the Vermont Superior Court, defendants represent themselves in 94 percent of small claims cases, in 84 percent of custody cases and in more than half of divorce cases.

In certain types of cases, the services are often skewed. In landlord-tenant disputes, three-quarters of landlords have legal representation, while only 10 percent of tenants do.

The committee recommended expanding the authority of paralegals, giving them the go-ahead to complete some tasks that currently must be done by lawyers. Paralegals are specially trained, but they are not members of the bar and do not hold a juris doctorate.

A new program would be created to license paralegals who, under the supervision of an attorney, could perform specific tasks at a lower cost. In some instances, this shift in duties would make legal representation more affordable.

Peter Shumlin, Paul Reiber
Gov. Peter Shumlin is sworn in by Chief Justice Paul Reiber. File photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

According to the report, “paralegals can reach out to serve a population that is not now being served and help support and integrate the practice of the law.”

The commission also recommends changing the way the state deals with certain types of cases, including consumer credit collection cases.

Those cases are currently handled in small claims court, but the commission recommended transferring them to Superior Court. Richardson said that cases sometimes languish in small claims for more than a decade.

The commission envisions creating a system that creates incentives for people who are the target of debt collection to come forward so that the claims can be resolved more quickly.

Richardson said that could be of benefit to the court system, which would save time on managing the case, as well as the plaintiffs and defendants, who would reach resolution more quickly.

The commission also recognized a need to raise literacy about the legal process among the public in general, Richardson said.

“There’s a lack of understanding with people of how the court system works,” Richardson said.

Other recommendations include updating the judiciary’s case management system and changing the way complex litigation is handled by the courts.

The commission suggests that judges be permanently assigned to complicated litigation, especially business disputes that can take years to resolve. This approach, which has been successful in other states, would prevent complex civil cases from clogging up the courts.

Eric Avildsen, executive director of Vermont Legal Aid, who served on the legal services committee of the commission, said making the judiciary website more comprehensive and easier to navigate would help everyone.

“When you end up in the court’s system to find something, a lawyer can’t find their way to get where they need to go,” Avildsen said.

Avildsen said many of the other changes will not have a significant impact on the lowest income Vermonters.

One of the biggest issues the judiciary faces is a shortage of lawyers who can afford to work in rural communities or at firms like Vermont Legal Aid that serve low-income populations, according to Avildsen. Crushing student debt incurred by recent law school grads has made it harder than ever to attract new attorneys to poverty law, he said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • Neil Johnson

    The state needs more judges. The constitution calls for a speedy trial. That shouldn’t be more than a year for any case. Small claims is supposed to be for the people and no need for an attorney. The fact it takes a year + in small claims is ludicrous. We’d have much more justice with more judges. Attorneys love to milk clients until their day in court, then just prior it’s you should settle, settle, settle.

    More judges =More justice

    Land lords need an attorney, otherwise they are totally up the creek. Please show me where our laws favor land lords…..I’m in the business, it doesn’t exist.

  • Jamie Carter

    The Legislature needs to do clarifiy things and do away with others. Divorce and custody are a major clog in the court system. While custody is supposed to be evaluated on 9 criteria the Court can weight the criteria differently as they want to and essentially ignore them all together if they so choose. IF all criteria were weighted in a defined manner a parent could asses on their own if they stood a chance to be awarded custody without going to court.

    Some public education would also go along way… how many go to court over child support? There is an online calculator to determine a “guideline” unless there is reason to deviate from it. If more people would check and see what the guideline prior to litigating it would help clear some backlog.

    Another HUGE clog in the court system are pleas bargains. Nearly every guilty person walks into court and pleads not-guilty. Many of the cases never see a trial, because lawyers and defendants alike know that if they wait it out and file a few motions they can’t plea it down to a lesser charge. IF there were no plea bargains the prosecuting attorney would need to charge a person only with they can prove in court AND a defendant would know it’s either plead guilty or go to trial. Most of the time people are pleading not because our court system has turned into a used car dealership where the prosecution and defense are dickering back and forth on the costs. Which back logs the court and costs more money.

    A final piece is to revamp the current laws so that law actually coincides with the punishment. For example a 1st offense DUI carries a prison sentence of “up to 2 years”… and yet no one is getting 2 years in jail for a first offense DUI. Make the sentence know, if you are convicted you get X. If there are extenuating circumstances you get Y. But it’s a black box currently and that is why everyone pleads not guilty, goes for a plea bargain. If you knew you were getting 40 hrs work crew and a fine for a DUI and it was all or nothing you’d just walk in a plead guilty.

    But when a man can get life in prison for his 17th DUI and then be released in 3 years because the court suspended most of it is ridiculous. If the penalty is know and the charge is fitting you don’t need plea bargains. It’s when the actual punishment is unclear and prosecuters are trumping up charges so there is leeway to plea bargain that we get people tying up the court system.

    • Pat McGarry


      One reason for delays in criminal cases is that there is no real probable cause determination. A judge almost always finds probable cause at arraignment, which allows prosecutors to overcharge crimes.

      In California, for example, EVERY felony case has a probable cause hearing with witnesses shortly after arraignment. Because California judges are willing to dismiss overcharged crimes, you don’t hear about aggravated assault charges being pled down to disorderly conduct.

      Further, a prosecutor in California can’t dismiss a charge himself once he’s filed it, so plea bargains which are too light are frequently rejected by judges.

  • Neil Johnson

    Great comments. Perhaps there should be guidelines on divorce and established before getting married.

    Most people fight over the money and the kids lose. Put the money in an account for the kid.

    You make some great points. I love the used car analogy. Too bad our society has adopted this lifestyle.

  • Deb Wright

    Despite the need for affordable legal help, the VT AG’s office decided in 2014 they will no longer assist citizens with violation complaints of Open Meeting Law or Public Record Requests. Citizens are forced to pay for and file their complaint with their local superior court.

  • Teddy Hopkins

    What appears to be silent is the hourly rates charged by some of these attorneys thus compounding the problem.
    Every phone call however duration it may be gets billed a minimum amount. Mileage appears to be charged at top dollar. Has anyone checked the price of copies lately?
    As long as these services justified or not keep getting billed as such the problem is going to persist. Same goes for education and health care.

  • Keith Stern

    It’s time for a complete overhaul of the tort system to make it fairer, quicker, and more reasonable.

  • William Hays

    Old saw: “If you can’t do the time…” Guess that applies to marriage, too. The upcoming ‘same sex’ divorces are going to be really nasty and disgusting to watch/read about.

  • james willey

    Such a shame that both Freddie Bastiat (“The Law”) and Herr Kafka are both unavailable for comment.

  • Karen Winchell

    I have heard comments from attorneys such as “VT is a bad practice” and the courts here are “a crap shoot”. Some judges’ courts seem fair, win or lose, one can leave understanding the verdict and accepting justice has been served. In other cases, Kafkaesque is a wonderful description.

  • Patricia Shane

    On a totally different note: During the five years I have lived in Vermont, I have more than noticed the obstacles many folks face when trying to procure legal advice or representation. I was recently awarded a North Star Scholarship, a rural law scholarship, to study law at William Mitchell College of Law in MN. How can I do that as a resident of Vermont, you ask? William Mitchell offers the first ABA-approved hybrid law program in the country–most of this rigorous program is online–the remainder is covered in intensive, biannual, seven-day retreats in MN. The program is tough, but extremely cutting edge and practical: it’s getting great reviews. I look forward to soon helping Vermont residents access the kind of legal services they need, when they need them.Vermont Law School has recently increased online offerings; perhaps a program such as WM’s is in the School’s not-too-distant future?