Advocates: Signing SB 361 Allows Paralegals To Represent Clients in Some Cases

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Sarah Mattson Dustin

CONCORD – With the signing today of SB 361, Governor Chris Sununu expanded and extended New Hampshire’s most significant innovation toward solving the access-to-justice problem in our state.

In 2022, the Legislature approved one of the nation’s first pilot projects allowing paralegals to represent clients in domestic violence, family law, and housing cases at court locations in Manchester, Berlin, and Franklin. The existing pilot would have sunset at the end of 2024. SB 361 extends the pilot project by five years and expands it to all District Division and Family Division court locations, statewide.

Every year, more than 120,000 cases are filed in New Hampshire’s circuit court system. Only 15 percent of litigants in those cases are represented by an attorney.

Some unrepresented litigants can understand the applicable law and advocate effectively for themselves. Many others struggle to protect their own interests in a complex system that they often encounter during a difficult time in their lives.

People in need of legal assistance regarding housing, domestic violence, family law, or any other civil (non-criminal) matter, should call 603 Legal Aid at 603-224-3333 or complete an online application at

603 Legal Aid and NHLA can assist with many types of civil legal matters including eviction; foreclosure; wrongful denial of local, state or federal benefits; divorce; protective orders; federal tax issues; and criminal records annulments.

“New Hampshire is at the leading edge of states seeking to increase access to justice through the services of nonlawyers,” says Sarah Mattson Dustin, Executive Director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA), the largest provider of civil legal aid for individuals with low income in New Hampshire. 

“I’ve worked at NHLA for more than 16 years. And in those 16 years, not a single week has gone by when we have not turned someone away because we don’t have enough staff to help them. Since the pilot program began, we’ve taken nearly 20 cases for people we would have had to turn away otherwise, with excellent results.”

Unlike in most criminal cases, there is no right to a court-appointed attorney in the vast majority of civil cases. For example, people facing eviction or foreclosure have no right to an attorney. Nor do people getting divorced, litigating the parenting arrangements for their minor children, or seeking a protective order after experiencing intimate partner violence.

Paralegals have for decades had statutory authority to represent clients in some case types – for example in certain federal disability benefits and immigration proceedings – and  NHLA paralegals represent dozens of clients in those settings every year. They also often represent clients in administrative law proceedings outside the court system, such as municipal welfare hearings and Section 8 voucher terminations. NHLA has invested heavily in training and supervising paralegals to maintain the high quality of its services and compliance with professional ethics.

“We know from more than half a century’s experience that paralegals absolutely have the knowledge and skills to represent people with attorney supervision. But until this pilot project, there has always been an invisible line around the courthouse,” Mattson Dustin says. “In addition to Governor Sununu and the Legislature, we are so grateful to the New Hampshire Judicial Branch, the Access to Justice Commission, and other stakeholders for recognizing that this pilot project is a meaningful step toward making civil legal aid available to all who need it.”

The Legislature first started working on what became the pilot project in a study committee in 2019. Nine other states have implemented paraprofessional representation projects and several more are considering such efforts, including Texas.

  • Under this pilot project, any attorney in NH could supervise a paralegal representing clients in these specific kinds of cases; it’s not just for NHLA.
  • And, crucially, this is not about paralegals hanging their own shingle and taking cases on their own. Their work is all to be done under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
  • The supervising attorney must consent to supervise the paralegal and ensure their compliance with the Rules of Professional Responsibility. A complaint about a paralegal’s services is functionally a complaint about the supervising attorney, and attorney discipline goes through the Attorney Discipline Office. There is not a separate disciplinary authority for paralegals.
  • All services provided by NHLA paralegals under the pilot project are free. But that is because NHLA’s services are free, not because of a requirement of the pilot project.
  • An attorney or law firm could conceivably charge for the services provided by a paralegal. However, under the pilot project rules, paralegals can only represent clients who have income below 300% of the federal poverty limit, so they are not likely to have much ability to pay for services regardless of who is providing them.
  • This is most likely to increase legal services’ capacity by allowing some of our exceedingly capable staff to do more direct client services, and, we hope, provide a new avenue for law firms to participate in pro bono activities.

About New Hampshire Legal Assistance: New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) is a statewide nonprofit law firm that has provided free legal aid to Granite Staters with low income for more than 50 years. NHLA works with clients in civil cases impacting their basic human needs. Most of NHLA’s cases involve protecting people’s housing, personal safety from abuse, and access to public benefits. NHLA served nearly 5,000 people in 2023. Sarah Mattson Dustin, of Hopkinton, has been executive director of NHLA since 2018, and served NHLA for a decade prior to that as a staff attorney and as policy director.

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