Poor often go it alone in Utah's legal system
Trying to divorce an abusive spouse? Illegally fired from your job? Being evicted for something you didn't do?
If you're poor, the odds are you'll have to go it alone, without the help of a lawyer.
A study released Wednesday shows that only 13 percent of low-income households with a legal problem in Utah received professional legal help last year.
That adds up to more than 80,000 cases a year where the legal needs of Utahns are unmet, according to the report by Utah Legal Services and And Justice for All, groups that work to increase access to legal help for disadvantaged Utahns and people with disabilities.
"All the numbers in this report represent actual problems faced by your fellow Utahns," said lawyer Jody Burnett, a board member of And Justice for All.
Burnett pointed out that while there is a constitutional right to legal representation in a criminal case, there is no right to help in a civil matter.
And those matters deal with fundamental needs, such as survival, the need to thrive, to have meaningful work and satisfying relationships, said Chief Justice Christine Durham of the Utah Supreme Court.
"So many legal needs dovetail with basic needs," Durham said.
To meet those needs, And Justice for All is identifying where help is lacking and conducting its annual campaign to raise funds for free and income-based legal aid programs in Utah.
So far, the group has raised $366,000 toward its goal of $505,000 for 2007. Most of the money comes from law firms, according to Gregory Williams, a Salt lake City attorney and the And Justice for All campaign chair.
The study, which surveyed members of Utah households with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, found that only 26.8 percent of all households were satisfied with the outcome of their problems. The percentage shot up to 71.9 percent among those who received legal help.
Heather, a mother of four in Salt Lake City, is one of the satisfied clients.
Last summer, after her daughter said she was being molested by Heather's husband, she gathered up her kids and left. They first stayed with a friend and finally ended up in a shelter.
"You just never know when you'll need legal aid," said Heather, whose last name is not being used by The Tribune to protect her daughter's identity. "We were middle class. Then I'm homeless and in a shelter with four kids."
With guidance from a victim's advocate in Sandy, Heather obtained a protective order against her husband and found help at the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.
A paralegal, working under the direction of a lawyer, made sure she got custody of the children and child support. The support owed will accrue even while her husband, who is awaiting sentencing in a criminal case, is incarcerated.
The legal assistance has allowed the family to move out of the shelter, said Heather, who left her husband in August and was divorced by November.
"Working with Legal Aid was absolutely the least painless part of all of this," she said.
Other major findings of the legal aid report:
* About 67 percent of low-income households face a civil legal problem each year, such as a divorce or an employment dispute. The number of problems exceed 92,000.
* The civil legal help most needed by low-income Utahns involves family law, employment, housing and consumer law.
* Only 18.4 percent of these households looked for legal help and only 13 percent reported having received it.
To help the poor get the help they need, Utah Legal Services and And Justice for All recommend:
* Using a range of legal advocacy techniques, including self-help and community legal education.
* Increasing opportunities for lawyers to do pro bono, or free, work.
* Educating low-income individuals on where to turn for legal assistance.
* Developing a statewide plan to address unmet legal needs.
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