Organization tackles legal issues for underprivileged

by DANIELLE MURPHY

More than 92,000 low-income households in Utah are affected by civil legal problems each year, including University of Utah students. One particular organization is working to help get voices heard.

“…And Justice For All” is an organization encompassing three groups of civil legal services: Disability Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, and Utah Legal Services.

Together, these organizations assist low-income and disabled individuals who often have nowhere else to turn.

One University of Utah student who uses a wheelchair ran into a dilemma last year when road construction on campus blocked the entry at his regular bus stop. This oversight forced the student to find a new route that took an additional 30 to 45 minuets every day. It also prohibited him from ever making it to class on time.

After calling the Disability Law Center, the problem was solved within a week and the student was able to return to his regular route.

“What may seem like a minor inconvenience to some became a major obstacle to my education,” said the student in an interview with “…And Justice For All.” “I am so glad there was someone at the DLC who could help me and that the University was eager to find a realistic, workable solution,” he said.

Most of the problems brought to the organization are very basic legal issues that impact everyday life. Certain individuals facing these problems are invited to utilize the organization’s services free of charge. The eligible individuals include those in poverty conditions, those with physical or mental disabilities, as well as those who are victims of domestic violence.

Kai Wilson, executive director of “…And Justice For All,” describes their typical caseload as issues “that impact what we all do every day, from the relationships we have … to how our houses are built and what landlords have to do to make sure we are in safe and stable housing.”

Since 1998, “…And Justice For All” has been striving to equalize the playing field for those in need. The services offered at “…And Justice For All” provide aid that Wilson estimates can improve the quality of nearly 20 percent of low-income households in Utah.

The United States legal system can seem complex and confusing. Wilson said only 13 percent of the households that are considered very poor are receiving help with their civil legal problems.

Wilson describes one of the goals of the program as self-advocacy. “…And Justice For All” emphasizes teaching people to fight for their own rights and showing them the necessary steps to take.

Often “…And Justice For All” partners serve by giving simple legal advice to those who need it. If necessary, however, the organization also has the capacity to represent clients in trials.

Of the individuals who contacted ULS last year, Wilson said only about 8,000 were represented at trial. In taking cases, needs are prioritized and those with the most pressing issues are assisted first. Domestic violence is one example of a pressing issue that is prioritized.

“…And Justice For All” acts as an umbrella organization to its affiliates. The combination of three of Utah’s existing legal aid services allowed all of the organizations to save money through shared logistics and staff support. This situation also benefits individual clients who need to utilize more than one of the three affiliate organization’s services.

“…And Justice For All” has an official mission to create and sustain resources to provide effective civil legal services while strengthening individual agencies in its distinct roles. Wilson estimates that together these organizations assisted around 36,000 people in 2008.

The government subsidizes 80 percent of funding for Utah Legal Services and Disability Law Center. Other sources of income include donations from members of the Utah State Bar in the form of monetary gifts and pro bono work. Fundraisers are held throughout the year to raise money for the program.

Assistance is also available to immigrants, refugees and American Indians in Utah through further affiliated organizations, such as Navajo Nation Legal Services (DNA), Catholic Community Services and the Multi-Cultural Legal Center.