Getting affordable legal help

by EMILY A. SHOWGREN

Legal battles can often end up being expensive and during an economic crisis can make people want to stay in a bad situation. But what if you could go somewhere to receive affordable or even free legal help? What if you could represent yourself in court, cutting the cost and not having to trust someone else to tell your side of the story?

…And Justice for All” is an organization that supports “free civil legal aid programs for Utah’s most vulnerable citizens – people living in poverty, individuals with disabilities, veterans, seniors, minorities and victims of domestic violence,” according to its Web site. The founding partners of the organization are the Disability Law Center, Utah Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake (LAS).

“A priority issue of LAS is family law,” said Kai Wilson, executive director of “…and Justice for all.” “Only 13 percent of people living below the poverty line are getting help. It has become so pricey for people to get help.”

This is why LAS provides several free family law clinics in Salt Lake County. One is a “pro se” clinic where attorneys and volunteers can help an individual learn how to represent themselves in court. At the Self-Represented Family Law Litigant Clinic, people can receive instruction, answers to questions and help completing legal documents for civil legal proceedings. However, no legal advice is given at the clinic and there are a few conditions. The case has to be able to be filed in Salt Lake County, individuals must be low-income Utahns and it has to be a family-law matter such as custody, paternity, child support and/or divorce.

When filing for divorce last spring, Bryan Forsyth went to a costly attorney. “I went straight to my mom’s lawyer,” he said.

After a few months, he and his wife reconciled. He had no idea he could have represented himself in the divorce and cut down the cost that was later unnecessary. Forsyth said he possibly would have rethought going that route if he would have known there was another way.

“We started to set everything up online so I’m sure I could have handled representing myself,” Forsyth said.

He also could have used the clinic for information on the Utah mandatory divorce mediation. In Forsyth’s case, the divorce was contested and under Utah law a contested divorce requires at least one session of mediation.

The clinic provides a pamphlet with information regarding mediation. It informs readers about what mediation is, how to find a mediator, who pays for the mediator and other general questions regarding the process.

The assistance program for representing yourself in a divorce can help you address issues of the divorce. Included are: who gets the house, any pension plans and retirement accounts, debt payments, alimony, name change of spouse and custody.

Something that may come up in a divorce is determining the custody of children. You can also represent yourself for this type of case. However, the program will not allow you to enter information for more than six children. If this is the case, you may want to hire an attorney or complete your parentage papers somewhere else.

The clinic has several computers that can be used to complete the online programs for specific cases. Each program guides users through case-related questions. After the questions are answered, the required documents, complete with instructions, are created. Someone is always present at the clinic who can help with any questions you may have while filling out the online paperwork. The time it takes depends on circumstances but will usually require about an hour to complete. When the documents are completed, you can sign and file them with the court to start the process.

The clinic is held Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Matheson Courthouse, 450 S. State St., room W-15, in Salt Lake City. For more information and schedule changes, call (801) 238-7170.