Pro bono agency seeks funds for disadvantaged

by MADISON RICE

A possible $200,000 cut looms over domestic abuse and family law assistance in the 2009 legislative session. But Kai Wilson, executive director of “…And Justice For All,” is optimistic that his umbrella organization will continue to provide access to legal services for disadvantaged Utahns — despite what others would call a setback.

Formed by several nonprofit advocacy groups in 1998, “…And Justice For All” is comprised of the Disability Law Center, the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, and Utah Legal Services. Together they allow clients access to various legal services such as help for domestic violence victims, employment problems and helping disabled persons receive their benefits.

Wilson related a story about a Utah woman who is deaf. Her insurance wouldn’t pay for a cochlear implant she needed. The woman contacted “…And Justice For All” and received help from the Disability Law Center, which took legal action for her to get her implant. “She could hear her children’s voices for the first time,” Wilson said.

The Disability Law Center also helped a client acquire a needed wheelchair ramp in his home.

The goal of “…And Justice For All” is to support 20 percent of low-income families with legal assistance. Currently it assists 13 percent.

“Thirty-six thousand people were helped last year,” Wilson said. “We would love to assist as many people as the most successful states. Only money is in our way.”

Utah Legal Services reported more than 80,000 legal needs go unmet each year in Utah.

Legislative funding isn’t the only thing the economy may affect. While there has been a spike in requests for bankruptcy assistance, Wilson noted a significant drop in donations from banks. “At one point, banks made 6 percent of our revenue,” he said.

The umbrella organization conducts an annual campaign focusing primarily on attorneys to raise about $850,000. These funds support the three nonprofit organizations as well as help other organizations with their unmet needs.

The current “Campaign Kick-off” was held Jan. 29, 2009, at the Utah Law and Justice Center in Salt Lake City. Several attorneys and other individual contributors in attendance had breakfast and listened to keynote speaker State Sen. Stephen H. Urquhart (R-St. George).

The organization’s fundraising events have included continuing legal education seminars, a silent auction, a 5K run and walk, a phone-a-thon by new lawyers and even a “Bar Sharks for Justice” pool tournament.

These events are essential in promoting the mission of “…And Justice For All,” which is “to increase access to civil legal services for the disadvantaged and those with disabilities throughout Utah,” according to its mission statement.

Contributions from law firms and individual contributors make up 80 percent of funding for “…And Justice For All,” while 20 percent is rental revenue from its building. Among the top-donating law firms is Parr Brown Gee and Loveless, a Salt Lake City-based commercial law firm.

“I think [“…And Justice For All”] is a good thing,” said Bruce Maak, an attorney and founding member of Parr Brown Gee and Loveless. “One of our legal system’s shortcomings is that utilizing it is unreasonably expensive. Even middle-income American people cannot afford to use the legal system, even though they may need it, because it is beyond the expense that their budgets can sustain.”

Maak has made referrals to clients who have met the requirements for these Utah pro bono programs.

“Anything that can be done to make legal services more available to lower-income people is a good thing,” Maak said. “The lawyers who do that are very dedicated people.”

Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake helps victims of domestic violence obtain protective orders. A study done by Legal Aid shows that 91 percent of people do not experience violence in the home after receiving a protective order. Knowing this, the group prioritizes cases involving domestic violence and immediate needs like food and shelter, Wilson said. In 2008, Legal Aid helped 22,000 people and represented 8,000 of those.

“People hear about us by word of mouth,” Wilson said. “Several state agencies refer people to us and a lot of people just know other people who used us.”

“…And Justice For All” is determined to continue providing free and low-cost legal services in Utah despite the economic turmoil.

“We are all about self-advocacy,” Wilson said. “To teach people to fight for their rights.”