Legal help for low-income Utahns is in danger of losing funding

by PAIGE KASTELER

The shrinking state budget is forcing the Utah Legislature to consider cuts in funding for programs that help low-income Utahns. One of those programs facing the chopping block is Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit organization designed to give legal representation to low-income Utahns.

Utah Legal Services (ULS) performs most of its legal work for victims of domestic violence, helping victims acquire protective orders, receive child support and access government benefits. ULS is also part of a larger nonprofit organization called “…And Justice For All” that partners with other law centers to better serve more Utahns seeking legal help.

Kai Wilson, executive director of AJFA, said these organizations are important because the legal system is becoming specialized to only people with money. Wilson said the legal system is something everyone should have access to and dreams of a day when Utah will catch up to other states and have the funding to assist 20 percent of low-income individuals. Right now Utah assists 13 percent.

Funding is the only thing that is holding these organizations back from helping more people. ULS is especially susceptible to budget reductions because it receives 89 percent of its funding from the government. In 2008, ULS provided legal services for 22,000 disadvantaged people, but still had to turn away many who needed help. One study suggests that more than 80,000 people in the state have an unmet need for legal aid.

Rosario Martinez, 54, of Salt Lake City, is one of those individuals who was turned away due to lack of funding. After suffering many years of domestic abuse, Martinez decided to divorce her husband. Her husband hired a divorce lawyer but Martinez did not have the money to acquire legal help for herself. She turned to ULS for help and was turned away during the screening process because she was not in any immediate danger from her estranged husband.

Martinez understood her rejection. “I know it’s not their fault. They can’t help everybody,” she said. But she acknowledged legal help would have been nice.

“Now my husband is trying to get out of child support and I have no one to fight for me. I can’t fight this on my own,” she said.

There are people at work fighting for more funding so they can help Martinez and others like her. AJFA raises $850,000 a year, mostly from attorneys, through various fundraising events including auctions, breakfasts, pool tournaments and a 5K run. Still, with all the state money and donations, the need for legal help remains great. One study suggests that more than two out of every three low-income households in Utah will face a civil legal problem every year.

However, aside from all the people who aren’t able to receive help, these organizations have many success stories.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, received legal assistance from the Disability Law Center. This organization is part of AFJA and specializes in gaining rights for people with disabilities.

The woman, who was deaf, fought to receive a cochlear implant, but her insurance company refused to cover the procedure. The Disability Law Center provided her with full legal representation and together they got the health insurance company to approve her operation. With the help of legal services this woman is able to hear her children’s voices for the first time.

It is for reasons like these that the directors, attorneys and volunteers of these organizations are so passionate about their cause.

E. Clinton Bamberger, with ULS, said legal help is a key factor in eliminating the debilitating effects of poverty.

“Our responsibility is to marshal the forces of law to combat the causes and effects of poverty,” Bamberger said in a ULS publication. “We must uncover the legal causes of poverty, remodel the system which generates the cycle of poverty and design new social, legal and political tools and vehicles to move poor people from deprivation, depression, and despair to opportunity, hope, and ambition.”