By Rodney Snow
Utah Legal Services, the Legal Aid Society and related organizations are quietly keeping the courthouse doors open for many of Utah's poverty-level residents. It is unheralded and difficult work.
State bar officers from all 50 states, including the Utah State Bar, are working with Congress this week to ensure adequate funding for Legal Services Corp., which provides funding for Utah Legal Services. Cuts in federal funds are putting this and other programs at risk, causing citizens in need of legal help to go without.
ULS gets funding from sources that include charitable foundations, law firms, individual attorneys, corporations and the Utah Legislature. Still, overall funding remains inadequate. ULS and the bar thank legislators for appropriating $200,000 in increased funding this year for legal services for those below 125 percent of the poverty level.
There is no more worthy cause than increasing access to justice for all. This is a priority for the bar, which has a new pro bono program, and for its members, as more than 70 percent of Utah's lawyers do weekly pro bono work.
ULS provides free representation and assistance to Utah's most vulnerable residents, including women and children who are victims of domestic violence, seniors, veterans, the homeless and the disabled. Of 20,208 requests for assistance in 2011, ULS was able to represent more than 14,000 of them.
Last year alone, ULS helped almost 7,000 women and children affected by domestic violence, at a time when Utah saw some 33 domestic violence deaths and 169,000 intimate partner assaults. Research indicates that providing legal services is the best way to reduce the incidence of domestic violence. For example, when a court issues a protective order, 91 percent of victims report no further abuse after one year.
Nationally, Legal Services Corp. helps to meet the needs of 63 million qualifying Americans including 22 million children who live at or just above the poverty line. LSC funds are distributed through competitive grants benefiting 2.3 million people last year. Still, research shows that about half of the applicants are turned away for lack of funding.
Access to justice is more than just a slogan. There are very real consequences for an evicted family that cannot find a remedy in the courtroom, or for a veteran denied benefits because no one could help with legal forms. Access to justice is one of our nation's foundational promises, and LSC strives to make that promise a reality.
Congress should cut wasteful government spending, but protect programs like the LSC that provide thousands of our neighbors their day in court every year.
Rodney Snow is president of the Utah State Bar. He will travel to Washington D.C. this week to encourage continued federal funding for Legal Services Corp.