Utah’s chief justice asks lawmakers to fund new judges, while touting efforts to make civil courts more accessible to those intimidated by the legal system

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matthew B. Durrant, Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court and Chair of the Utah Judicial Council introduces his colleagues in the State Supreme Court, as he gives his State of the Judiciary Address in the Senate, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant told legislators Monday that more funding is needed for the courts — not just to pay for new judges where the population has grown, but to increase pay for judges and clerical staff.

During the annual State of the Judiciary address during the first day of the legislative session, Durrant told lawmakers that providing funding for four new judges for Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties was critical to meet the needs of the people there and to make sure judges aren’t taking on too large of a caseload.

He said that while the courts estimate they need nearly seven new judges in the 3rd District Court, they are only requesting funding for four.

“The people need our careful attention to this matter,” he said. “They rightfully expect timely service from, and access to, our courts, and we can’t deliver it without your assistance and support.”

The courts are also asking for salaries to be increased for both existing judges and clerical staff, the chief justice said, adding that it is “important that we continue to attract new judges of the same caliber” as those currently serving. Judges make about $166,000.

Durrant also touched on the judicial branch’s efforts to make civil courts more accessible to average Utahns.

He touted the courts’ new online dispute resolution system, which allows parties to settle a legal dispute in small claims’ courts online instead of going before a judge at a courthouse. It’s more convenient for those involved, he said, and can be less stressful.

“The benefits of this flexible approach is obvious,” he said. “Simply put, many people never engage in the litigation process, because it requires them to take time off work, go to what they often see as a strange and intimidating courthouse, and to interact with an adversarial party face-to-face.”

The program launched last September in the West Valley City Justice Court, and Durrant said they’ve seen more than 600 cases filed in the four months the system has been running.

The chief justice also highlighted the creation of a new legal profession that the Utah courts had focused on in recent years: the licensed paralegal practitioner (LPP). Durrant compared these legal professionals to nurse practitioners in medicine, saying an LPP has more training and responsibilities than a normal paralegal, but is not quite a lawyer. This provides a more affordable option, he said, to Utahns who are trying to navigate the court system as they file for divorce, settle debts or resolve eviction issues.

“These kinds of innovations and experiments reflect our commitment to expanding access to justice for Utah’s citizens in ways that are responsive to what they want,” Durrant said, “not what is easiest or most convenient for the courts.”