Legal group seeks to help abuse victims

by ELIZABETH PEZQUEDA

“The Justice Gap,” a study conducted by Utah Legal Services and “…And Justice For All,” reports at least 68 percent of low-income households in Utah will face a civil legal need this year.

However, only a limited number of those families will actually receive the help and guidance they need to resolve these legal issues, due to the rising costs of legal assistance. Issues may range from custody cases to disability discrimination, but where there’s no money, there’s often very little available help.

“It is apparent that more and more frequently, access to justice depends on access to money,” the report states.

Enter: “…And Justice For All.”

“…And Justice For All” is a partnership of the Disability Law Center, Utah Legal Services and Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. Among many other services, the organization places an enormous priority on providing free legal guidance and assistance to families and individuals dealing with domestic violence. The nonprofit organization helps thousands of low-income individuals each year to obtain the safety and security they, and often their children, need without facing overwhelming legal fees.

“…And Justice For All” Executive Director Kai Wilson said thousands of people feel like they can’t get the help they need from the nation’s legal system because of financial barriers.

“[The legal system] has become so pricey that people feel trapped,” Wilson said. “They feel like they can’t get help.”

Wilson said he’s found that to be especially true now, during the increasing U.S. economic struggle. As the unemployment rate increases, so does the need for legal assistance.

“Requests for bankruptcy help, family law and protective orders have gone up by 20 percent … during this economic situation,” Wilson said.

Although many low-income Utah families have been experiencing increased struggles, there is help available. “…And Justice For All” partners with several groups to offer help in several ways, including over-the-phone guidance, in-clinic consultations and full trial assistance for those who meet the financial requirements. The organization strives to help as many low-income individuals as possible to get themselves and their children out of abusive and dangerous situations.

Legal Aid Society’s Executive Director, Stewart Ralphs, said he has dealt primarily with domestic violence cases since joining Legal Aid in 1991.

Most domestic violence legal services are free with other civil services offered on a sliding fee scale, Ralphs said. “Money should never be a barrier for victims of domestic violence,” he said.

Ralphs says he understands, however, that while finding free or affordable legal help is often an enormous obstacle for abuse victims, it certainly isn’t the only one. He mentioned a specific case in which his client was being subjected to brutal episodes of abuse by her husband. Her husband had gone so far as to put keys between his fingers when he hit her, leaving several long, deep gashes on her face. Ralphs said helping this woman and her children obtain physical safety from her husband opened his eyes to the mental and emotional struggles that abuse victims have to deal with when they seek help.

“I had a huge epiphany about the dynamics of domestic violence. The situation can be very confusing to victims who have suffered from traumatic event,” Ralphs said. “It can be very difficult to come forward and seek help.”

Ralphs said LAS wants victims to know “there is no shame in seeking help for yourself and your children. Our mantra is that domestic violence is a crime, but is the complete responsibility and fault of the abuser, not the victim.”

The success rate of LAS cases in which victims obtained protective orders, civil stalking injunctions and/or child protective orders is extremely promising.

“Last year, 85 to 90 percent of the victims we helped reported no further violence [after obtaining a protective order],” Ralphs said.

LAS completes two follow-up surveys after victims have obtained legal guidance: one after sixty days, the other after one year. Ralphs said the large majority of results from the surveys have been positive.

“…And Justice For All” was created to help victims of domestic abuse, low-income families and disabled individuals obtain the same legal guidance as those who can afford to pay for attorneys. Its aim is to provide a means to justice for all those who seek it.

“We just want to help,” Wilson said.