Utah’s chief justice says too few residents can afford legal help

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant delivers the State of the Judiciary Address to a joint meeting of the House and Senate during the first day of the Utah legislative session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant told lawmakers Monday that more can and should be done to make legal services more affordable and accessible in the state.

Calling it a “crisis," Durrant said there is an enormous gap between low- and middle-income Utahns and the help they need to address common legal problems.

People simply can’t afford a lawyer,” Durrant said.

Durrant’s remarks were part of his annual State of the Judiciary Address and were offered on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. He asked lawmakers to increase judicial branch funding by roughly $1.5 million, which would pay for courthouse sound system repairs, new information technology staff and additional employees to help with administrative backlogs.

“I can say that as to our administrative leadership, the state of the judiciary is strong,” Durrant said. “I have never been more thrilled with our leadership.”

But Durrant also suggested the judicial branch be empowered to take a coordinating role in the state’s mental health and drug treatment efforts. Jails and prisons have become “de facto mental institutions,” Durrant said, which creates challenges for the court system and the state as a whole.

Utah’s judges are in a position to take a more significant role in coordinating with community organizations, he said, and identify gaps in services.

Much of Durrant’s speech focused on his experience with the state’s drug court programs — which provide a treatment-based alternative to incarceration for some offenders. While some drug court participants go on to commit other crimes, Durrant said, many are permanently changed by the experience.

“Every person matters,” Durrant said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, tweeted praised for Durrant’s remarks, calling the address “wonderful.”

“We need to treat, not incarcerate, the mentally ill,” King said.

Utah has implemented a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years aimed at reducing, or providing alternatives to, the incarceration of nonviolent offenders. At the same time, the state has experienced growth in its prison population and is preparing to replace its flagship prison in Draper with a smaller facility in Salt Lake City.

Members of the legal community have also raised the issue of accessibility, with the state’s public defenders facing an increasing workload that leaves them stretched thin between multiple clients.

In Salt Lake County, court officials have taken a series of controversial steps aimed at reducing backlogs, including the random assignment of cases and the training of juvenile court judges to serve as district court substitutes.

Durrant on Monday described ongoing efforts to expand online court forms and self-help services. He also said private firms in the state have generously stepped up their pro bono services and that the judicial branch is exploring the ability of licensed paralegals to provide basic court services, which he compared to the medical work of a nurse practitioner.

Those are some of the areas where regulations could be reworked to provide more freedom to the legal community, Durrant said, which could lead to free market forces driving down costs and improving services.

“We’re going to do this in a thoughtful, data-driven way,” he said.

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