Legal Aid Society levels playing field for domestic victims

by PATRICK HARRINGTON

Stewart Ralphs’ passion is apparent when speaking about the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake’s work with domestic abuse victims. “I get to level the playing field, sometimes it is the first time in my client’s life that someone has stuck up for them,” he said.

Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake is the oldest functioning pro bono legal office in Utah. Formed in 1922, Legal Aid Society continues to focus primarily on domestic violence and family law cases in which the client is filing for personal protection, custody rights or divorce in a court of law.

Ralphs, the executive director, has devoted his legal career to domestic violence issues since joining LAS in 1991.

“Within the domestic violence program, just over 3,000 people are helped per year,” Ralphs said. The most common way to deal with certain domestic violence issues is to have the client fill out a protective order, with one of the experienced attorneys at LAS.

To obtain a permanent protective order against someone, the client must be a cohabitant with the person they are filing the claim against. A cohabitant must have a relation by blood, marriage, mutual child or common living situation to be awarded a full protective order.

Cases in which the client is just dating the person being served and has no official legal connection may file a civil stalking injunction. Injunctions are limited to 150 days of protection, whereas the full protective order lasts indefinitely, or until the judge feels a temporary order will suffice.

Dealing with certain clients proves to be difficult. “ Most of the people that we deal with are basket cases,” Ralphs said. “They have just come off one of the most traumatic experiences of their life. A loved one hurt them, and they are going through trauma. We have to be sensitive with people’s needs.”

Sensitivity also has to be met with determination and persistence. Legal Aid Society lawyers have to deal with massive caseloads that demand much of their time.

“The majority of our lawyers are dealing with case loads in the hundreds every year, and if they are family law cases they may take several months to a few years to get a judgment,” Ralphs said.

Even the application and registration process for obtaining legal counsel from Legal Aid Society is a laborious and time-consuming effort. Every prospective client is run through a conflict check to ensure their current case will not be compromised by another they were previously involved with.

“Once a client, always a client. Once an opposing party, always an opposing party,” is the way that Ralphs describes the policy of conflict checks.

After a client is approved, obtaining a protective order can take four to five hours.

“Many of our clients are either illiterate or cannot speak English, so our involvement is crucial to ensure the quality of the legal process,” he said.

Over time the office has brought on board more qualified personnel and assistants (such as translators) to assist the tireless legal team. However, in its infancy Legal Aid was nothing but a small group of raw and talented individuals who had to take care of everyone that walked into their office; regardless of the circumstance.

John Scheaffer, who worked as an associate attorney at the Legal Aid Society before serving as executive director for five years, cannot speak highly enough about the work that the Legal Aid Society does for Salt Lake City families.

“Legal Aid has come such a long way since it was started by Allan Crockett in the 1920s,” he said. “When I first began working at Legal Aid, there were only three lawyers and three staff members. The lead attorney, Bill Shelton, was blind and he was in court every day with his Seeing-Eye dog, working so hard to help his clients get what they deserved.”

Through the free assistance of LAS, families can afford the help of top-notch legal counsel for their case, at little or no cost. The pro bono service offered through the organization is offered year round and pertains to anything from brief consultation to full representation in any family law or domestic violence case.

“ I have a great deal of respect for what they do at Legal Aid,” Scheaffer said. “It serves not only as a place for clients to seek legal help, but as a training ground for Utah’s next best lawyers.”