New York State courts’ working group proposes legal training and licensing for social workers

The recommendation aims to address the issue of access to justice for social workers’ clients

New York State courts’ working group proposes legal training and licensing for social workers

The New York state courts’ Working Group on Regulatory Innovation has proposed legal training and licensing for social workers in order to improve access to justice as well as the delivery of legal services in the state.

“There has long been a close relationship between social workers and lawyers in New York state and elsewhere. Often their clients are the same and the problems those clients present often reflect a variety of related legal and social issues,” the group said in a report published last December for the Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts.

The Working Group on Regulatory Innovation pointed out that social workers’ training already encompasses “interviewing, empathetic listening, identification of clients’ goals, evaluation, crisis intervention and referral” – skills that render them well-equipped to provide legal services. Thus, the group suggested the development of a program to train social workers to be able to offer clients services such as court representation.

“Many of the ‘legal-type’ services and advice that we believe could be rendered by social workers may not constitute the practice of law. If we are correct in that opinion, no future certification or authorisation would be required,” the Working Group on Regulatory Innovation said, although it acknowledged that recognition from the state’s Office of Court Administration “might be in order.”

Those who undertake the program could also receive certification or licensure from New York State to provide legal services. The working group’s co-chair and former partner at US firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Paul Saunders, said in a statement published by the American Bar Association Journal that licensure “offered the most promise to enable a fairly large group of people relatively quickly – with we hope relatively limited additional training – to offer legal services and advice that might ameliorate the access-to-justice issue.”

To execute the proposed program, the Working Group on Regulatory Innovation intended to work together with social work and law schools to create an academic curriculum that covers the legal services social workers would be able to offer. The group also recommended expanding the scope and substance of New York’s court navigators program to allow non-lawyer navigators to provide limited legal services and advice.

New York State chief judge and Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts founder Janet DiFiore welcomed the working group’s proposal and commended the group for “advancing carefully researched and creative solutions that I have no doubt will help us expand access to justice and meet the many short- and long-term challenges presented by this pandemic.”

“We welcome the working group’s recommendations and look forward to the expanded use of trained and supervised non-lawyer professionals who can appropriately and responsibly provide discrete limited-scope legal services in our high-volume courts,” DiFiore said.

Potential issues pinpointed by the Working Group on Regulatory Innovation in relation to the proposal include the differing ethical rules governing lawyers and social workers, as well as insurance coverage in cases of malpractice.

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