Utah legal aid: Money matters

by JED LAYTON

Kai Wilson isn’t greedy. He just wants money.

He wants more money to go into a group of agencies that provides legal services for low-income Utahns.

The agencies, which include Utah Legal Services, Disability Law Center and Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, all exist under the umbrella of another agency called “… And Justice For All.”

Wilson, executive director of “… And Justice For All,” refers to himself as an administrator who promotes legal assistance for the needy and tries to raise more funding.

“The more money we can raise, the more people we can help,” he said. Wilson gave numerous examples of the types of people the three agencies have helped over the years.

One individual — names are not typically given to keep identities confidential — escaped to Utah from an abusive husband. She contacted “… And Justice For All” to receive help obtaining a restraining order.

“She is now living happily away from her husband,” Wilson said.

However, not all stories end as well as hers. Wilson said the three agencies only help about 13 percent of Utah’s low-income population.

“Many people, especially in the rural parts of the state, they don’t even know we exist,” he said.

Wilson’s goal is to find a way to change that. But it is a difficult task. “… And Justice For All” and its three sub-agencies currently have an annual budget of about $5 million. Wilson said donations and funding directly to “… And Justice for All” accounts for nearly $1.2 million of the total.

“We earn 23 percent of the money as revenue from our services, the rest comes from donations,” he said. “We get $200,000 from the state each year, about $500,000 from various lawyers and the rest from others.”

While $5 million may seem like a hefty amount of cash, Wilson said money goes fast. The agencies spend an average of only $187 on each client helped.
For example, Utah Legal Services helped 22,000 people last year. However, most received quick advice or suggestions from an attorney. Only 8,000 clients were actually represented last year.

Wilson said his goal is to be able to help 20 percent of Utah’s low-income population. To do this, he said he would like to adopt funding resources similar to those used in other states.

He pointed to the state of Washington as an example of how he would like Utah’s legal aid funding to operate.

Nell McNamara, director of the Equal Justice Coalition in Washington, said the agencies she oversees are able to help more than 20 percent of Washington’s low-income population. The difference, she said, between Washington and other states is the number of agencies, a legal-aid-minded community and encouragement from local government.

The EJC comprises more than 50 separate agencies scattered throughout Washington and serving different legal needs, compared to Utah, which has just under half a dozen agencies. For example, one agency focuses on serving the needs of Washington’s immigrants. Another agency provides services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

McNamara said she was unsure how much money the groups received from donations but speculated it was the EJC’s biggest source of money. It receives $11 million from the state government each year. Add an additional $5 million from the federal government and its budget begins to soar.

“The problem is that we always need money,” McNamara said. “There are always people to help.” But, legal aid has improved over the past decade, she said.

In 2003, McNamara’s agency did a study that found 88 percent of low-income families were not receiving assistance. To improve that record, the legal aid community organized itself and formed what McNamara described as a “tight knight legal family.”

“They all seem to have embraced legal aid and know why it is important. We have a broad base of support that other parts of the country don’t have,” she said.

On top of that, the EJC has used innovative and unique ways to raise money. Life insurance plans, or planned death funds are popular. Charity events and lotteries are also used.

Wilson said Utah’s legal aid groups are starting to use similar methods to raise money, but the progress is slow. He added that the situation in Washington is ideal, but conditions in Utah would not make it possible.

“Utah is just a lot more conservative than a state like Washington,” he said. “The political atmosphere does not lend toward providing a lot of help toward legal aid.”

However, Wilson refuses to give up the fight. He has already created a planned death donation in his own name and encourages others to do the same if they are capable.

Meanwhile, Wilson will continue talking about “… And Justice For All” and working toward offering legal assistance to every person he can, not just 13 percent or 20 percent of the population.