Low-income legal help turns lives around

by PAIGE KASTELER

The need for legal aid is great among low-income Utahns. Two out of every three low-income households in Utah will face a civil legal problem every year. The average cost of legal services in Utah is about $10,000 — a cost few low-income families can probably afford.

These statistics were reported in a study done by “…And Justice For All,” a nonprofit organization designed to give legal assistance to low-income Utahns. Fortunately, there are many organizations like AJFA that can help.

The Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake is a private nonprofit organization that offers free and low-cost legal assistance in the area of family law, including divorce and help for victims of domestic violence.

Established in 1922, LAS has been assisting Utahns for almost a generation. LAS helped an estimated 22,000 low-income Utahns gain access to the legal system during 2008; that has been increasingly difficult to do, due to lack of funding.

Kai Wilson, executive director of AFJA, said these organizations are important because the legal system is becoming more specialized and only accessible to 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.

LAS receives half its funding from the state. Budget cuts and a drop in funding are a constant threat to LAS. The No. 1 thing that holds LAS back from helping more people is usually funding, which means that only those who need help the most can be assisted.

To qualify for legal assistance, paralegals at LAS look at several things. They take cases on the basis of severity of poverty, the type of case and the immediate need of the legal aid.

Rosario Martinez, 54, of Salt Lake City is one of those individuals who was turned away from LAS. After divorcing her abusive husband, Martinez sought help from LAS but was turned away during the screening process because she was not in any immediate danger from her ex-husband.

Martinez understands there are limits to how many people these organizations can help, but she does intend to keep on trying, especially now that her husband is trying to get out of paying child support.

While LAS cannot help everyone, it does assist many people each year. Stewart Ralphs, director of LAS, said the average client LAS sees is about 25 years old, has about two kids and usually is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LAS specializes in cases of domestic violence, specifically protective orders and stalking injunctions. It also offers help with domestic-relations cases, such as child custody and support, divorce, paternity and guardianship.

People seeking legal aid from LAS can apply at the Matheson Courthouse, 450 S. State St., in Salt Lake City. First there is a conflict check where paralegals determine if LAS will have any conflict representing the potential client. Then there is an intake interview with a paralegal who prepares the legal paperwork. This part takes about four to five hours, and is “not something you can do on your lunch hour,” Ralphs said. When the paperwork is completed, clients are assigned a lawyer to represent them through their legal needs. The average case takes about 45 days of legal work, which is relatively short; some legal cases can drag out for years.

These short legal cases often change clients’ lives forever.

One of these people is Susan, whose last name is being withheld for her safety. Susan filed a protective order against her physically abusive spouse to keep herself and her two children safe. But under the guise of visitation, Susan’s husband violated the protective order and took the children to Florida. LAS and the county attorney’s office in Florida arrested Susan’s husband. She flew to Florida to be reunited with her children and her spouse was extradited to Utah to face charges of custodial interference. Susan then filed for divorce.

She now has full custody of her children and is divorced from her abusive spouse, something she would have not been able to accomplish without the help of LAS.