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Utah Supreme Court out of touch

Published February 2, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Here is the headline of The Tribune's Jan. 28 story on Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant's address on the state of the judiciary: "Chief Justice: Courts at the limit, need help."

Those words show that the Supreme Court is out of touch with the practice of law.

As an attorney, I find the greatest satisfaction in meeting and helping ordinary people. Fifteen years ago, I opened my own family law practice to help people with their wills, trusts, probates, name changes, premarital agreements and, of course, divorce, paternity and child custody cases.

Attorneys do not get rich in this kind of practice, but they can make a difference by helping people.

The Supreme Court asks the Legislature for more money to make sure the courts are accessible to everyone. I agree with the premise. Everyone should have access to justice. People need legal help.

My problem is that the court is blaming attorneys for a perceived difficulty in accessing justice. For my part, over time I have increased my lowest divorce fee by only 14 percent, while the court has bumped up the divorce filing fee (which everyone pays) by 288 percent.

Furthermore, the court is now providing laymen with forms for every imaginable type of case. Does that make the court more accessible? Maybe. But it also clogs the court by filling it with people trying to represent themselves.

While the court administrators sit behind closed doors devising ways for people to act without attorneys, people are downstairs trying to obtain explanations from exasperated front-desk clerks, and judges' dockets are full of unnecessary hearings occasioned by people representing themselves, not knowing what else they can do.

It is frustrating to see person after person in my office with problems that would have been prevented by coming to see me earlier. It frustrates me that the court seeks to help people by eliminating lawyers.

In these ways the court is out of touch with reality. Judges resolve disputes on the evidence, but when your case is submitted by default or by agreement, judges must sign what is in front of them.

Over the years, fewer people come to my office to start their divorce — but they still come. They come when they have been struggling for months to do it themselves. They come when they have failed in their attempts and now have a court decision that is unfair and unlivable. They come to try to correct mistakes — something that is often not possible, and when it is possible will always take more time and cost more money than hiring a lawyer in the beginning.

That is why people come to see me after the divorce. Not because they didn't have access to a court, but because they went to court by themselves.

Everyone's life is worth protecting with good legal advice and representation. Instead of coaching a person to not hire an attorney on an important divorce or probate case that will determine that person's future, the court would do more good, at significantly less cost, if it would just give people a list of reputable attorneys to help and protect them.

Most people are smart enough to write court papers. That is not the issue. It is that people's futures are too important to be attempting to learn what to do for just one case, without legal training and experience. Having an experienced attorney is always worth the investment. The old adage remains true: He who represents himself at court has a fool for a client.

Stephen J. Buhler is an attorney in West Valley City.