Mediation saves families money

by TYLER COBB

Going to court for a divorce can be stressful, both monetarily and emotionally. In Utah couples are required to sit down with a mediator to work through their problems in an attempt to avoid a court trial and a hefty legal bill.

The State of Utah began requiring mediation in 2005 to help people avoid going to court by talking with a neutral mediator, trained in how to handle family conflicts and how to navigate the law.

Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, said hundreds of low-income families need legal advice and most lawyers do pro bono work to keep costs low. But it costs even less when couples can solve problems through a mediator.

“We’re trained in law school to be very zealous advocates for our clients and go to the mat and take these cases to trial and bring in all the evidence and win, win, win,” Ralphs said. “Mediation is just the opposite – it’s trying to come up with a resolution for everybody as a winner.”

Ralphs said the organization generally works with mediators from Utah Dispute Resolution, a nonprofit mediation organization where most mediators work as volunteers to keep costs low for struggling families.

If the parties can resolve their dispute using mediation it’s much cheaper than going to trial, and there is a fairly high rate of resolution. “It can vary between 60 to 75 percent of the time, which is certainly cheaper than going through the whole trial process,” Ralphs said.

Mediators spend hours negotiating with both parties to reach a fair conclusion, but they have to remain neutral despite what is said.

The courts require that mediators spend at least 40 hours in training, which they can receive at the dispute resolution center. Nancy McGahey, executive director of the center, said most mediators the center hires are well-trained and have certain skills and personality traits that help them work with couples.

“People in dispute need time. As a mediator you need to sit with people and be comfortable with people who are emotional,” McGahey said. “It’s also important to know oneself and be aware of your own internal biases, especially when you’re starting to lose neutrality.”

At the Legal Aid Society, attorneys rely “very heavily” on mediation to avoid court dispute, Ralphs said. Going to court can increase costs for all families. Ralphs said the organization charges anywhere from $200 to $600 for family-law cases, just for lawyer and court costs. However, there are other expenses depending on the results of the court and how long it drags out.

“You come up with an agreement that people are actually going to implement and make work,” Ralphs said. “These are people that have got to live the rest of their lives together. They have kids together. They have property together, and they can usually come up with a better solution than a judge can in a one- or two-day trial.”

Many women and/or men who come to the Legal Aid Society for a family-law case have multiple factors they need to consider and resolve, especially those seeking a divorce. The couple will have to review childcare, health care, child support, property resolution and other issues.

The Legal Aid Society sees so many family-law cases that they usually request mediators trained specifically for family law.

McGahey said family-law mediators need additional training beyond most mediators.

“They’re more experienced and have more training,” McGahey said. “To be approved on the court roster, a domestic mediator needs 20 hours of practical experience, an ethics exam, a criminal background check and in addition, the person needs a minimum of 32 hours domestic training and a formal mentorship, which involves six mediation sessions at a minimum.”

With a good mediator, a session can be successful and help couples find a solution.

Some women requesting legal help come from an abusive or closed relationship and sometimes need to say what they’re feeling, Ralphs said. A mediator can provide an atmosphere to work through problems without arguing or yelling.

If mediation or negotiation doesn’t work, attorneys will start preparing to take the case to court. “The custody battle follows,” Ralphs said.

Economy hurting low-income legal help

by TYLER COBB

The legal organization “And Justice For All…” helps about 33,000 people every year who can’t afford legal advice. But with fewer donations coming in annually, the organization may have to find alternate ways to fund services.

Romaine Marshall, a board member and attorney for the firm Holland & Hart, said most of the organization’s donations come in from law firms and other corporations. However, it is seeing fewer donations with the economy suffering.

“It’s a real problem,” Marshall said. “We’ve got to be more aggressive in getting law firms and companies to donate.”

The organization, which combines work by the Disability Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake and Utah Legal Services, has been around since 1998 to help people in need of legal representation. They help people who can’t afford legal services based on disability, poverty, age, migrant status or race, according to the “…And Justice for All” Web site.

Marshall said it also raises money through fundraisers such as hosting golf tournaments and other activities, or by sending board members out to help fund-raise.

“It’s forced me to go to other law firms to ask their firms to give donations to ‘…And Justice for All’,” Marshall said. “And we need to raise more.”

Kai Wilson, executive director for “…And Justice for All,” said the three main legal aid groups have made enormous progress in the past 10 years.

Since its inception, the organization has increased legal aid services to nearly 13 percent of the low-income population in Utah.

“[We’d] love to get to helping 20 percent of the low income in the state,” Wilson said.

The groups may in the future if numbers keep rising and alternate sources of income are located.

Marshall said the need is there, and the organization can do a lot of good if it continues. “The most common cases I’m seeing involve assistance,” Marshall said. “It’s going to families dealing with poverty issues, being evicted unlawfully; people who haven’t been properly helped and don’t know what to do.”

Since 1998, the “…And Justice For All” has been able to quadruple the amount of funding from the Utah State Bar’s membership. In 1998, only 5 percent of members donated to legal aid funds, but with the campaign, the amount rose to more than 30 percent, which adds up to about $400,000 every year.

Marshall said “…And Justice For All” expects the numbers of people requesting help to increase as well. “If we prorate the number of people who have asked for help this year, we will see that next year’s numbers will be much, much more,” Marshall said.

In the event donations drop off, Marshall and Wilson are looking for alternate ways to find resources. Part of the organization’s mission statement is to share and consolidate “resources so that services are delivered in a cost-efficient and effective manner, enabling service providers to serve additional clients,” according to the group’s Web site.

And many clients need the help. Some of their stories are posted on the Web site. A mother of three fled from Idaho to escape an abusive husband, who then followed her to Utah and hit her youngest child.

Police officers advised she get help from the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, which was able to help the woman obtain an ex parte protective order requiring her husband to stay away and assist financially.

“So many people need that legal help,” Marshall said.

Wilson said the problem is that many low-income families and people can’t afford legal services, which is where “…And Justice for All” steps in by raising the necessary funds.

The organization has plans to keep donations steady and keep increasing the number of people being helped every year.

“I haven’t been on the board for very long, but this is a good organization,” Marshall said. “I’m sure we’ll find a way to help everyone.”

Growing organization creates legal assistance for Utahns in need

by PATRICK HARRINGTON

“…With liberty and justice for all.” When the Rev. Francis Bellamy drafted those words in 1893, he intended that they be awarded not to only a select few, but everyone. Over time the ideal that he strode for began to fade just like the paper on which it was written.

Using the words of Bellamy’s “Pledge of Allegiance,” the organization “…And Justice For All” has created a web of pro bono legal assistance for those who cannot afford or understand it in an effort to truly restore “…liberty and justice for all” throughout the state of Utah. Due to massive federal funding cuts to legal services nationwide 13 years ago, “…And Justice For All” was created to offer pro bono legal services to Utah’s community as well as create fundraising opportunities. Leading the group is Kai Wilson. Wilson joined the program in its infancy and since then the organization has come to be a fundraising umbrella agency for Utah Legal Services, Disability Law Center and Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

“…And Justice For All” is the essential glue that binds the three legal bodies together by raising money, directing clients to the proper agency and attorney and educating people who need a legal edge but cannot afford consultation.

“The agencies offer help, anywhere from brief consultation to full representation in cases such as family law, disability claims, domestic violence cases and help with many other substantive matters,” Wilson said.

Although the attorneys in the agencies can fully represent their clients, many of them don’t need that amount of assistance. “Last year the agencies associated with ‘…And Justice For All’ assisted over 36,000 people,” he said.

Among the agencies, Utah Legal Services assisted 22,000 of those people, of which 8,000 received full legal representation in their cases.

The basis for the creation and continuation of “…And Justice For All” and its sister agencies is that people in the community who have the smallest voice and the least amount of resources typically need the most help with legal issues. Wilson said there is growing concern with the lack of legal access in America.

“Utah politicians are recognizing the problem that we face,” Wilson said. “One Utah lawmaker said that the state of the judicial system is that a lot of people are looking in at the party through the window, but can’t get in.”

Although the state and federal judicial systems are capable and accepting of pro se cases, self-representation may detract from the quality of judgment that a client may receive as opposed to having a qualified attorney.

Sharon Donovan is a prominent Salt Lake City family law attorney who served on the board of Legal Aid for six years and one year as agency president. Donovan also was recently named the Utah State Family Lawyer of the year.

“Legal needs should not be reserved only for wealthy or middle-class citizens,” she said. “The judicial system has no one to help all of the people that need it, nor the time to guide pro se clients while in the court of law. By having competent lawyers at no cost, the quality of judgment in the courtroom and the movement of the legal process is greatly improved.”

Within the past decade, “…And Justice For All” has grown from a grassroots organization to a respected and vital part of the legal community in Salt Lake City and Utah in general.

“As a part of being a lawyer, The Utah Rules of Professional Conduct  encourage any attorney to donate 50 hours of pro bono work a year or donate ten dollars in lieu of each hour to an agency providing legal aid to the poor,” Wilson said.

The agency is also seen as a great place to donate money, not only to help the community, but also provide tax deduction benefits to lawyers and firms in Salt Lake City. “Before the creation of the agency, only 5 percent of firms gave money to our cause; now over one-third of the Utah Sate Bar supports us financially,” Wilson said.

Although “…And Justice For All” has made strides in the legal community that were hard to imagine a decade ago, certain obstacles still remain.

“We would love to get to the point that we are helping as many people as more successful states, like Washington,” Wilson said.

What is stopping them now? “Money. It’s all about the money,” Wilson said. With funding from lawyers and private citizens alike, “…And Justice For All” could potentially meet its goal of increasing the number of clients who receive quality legal counsel and be a national leader in pro bono services within the next 10 years or less. To accomplish this, the organization plans to push forward with more fundraising and community involvement.