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.

Bankruptcy on the rise in Utah

The Utah Legal Services provides free legal aid for citizens who want to file bankruptcy

by MICHELLE SCHMITT

Bankruptcy filings are on the rise in Utah as the entire nation copes with job loss, credit card debt and uncertain economic times.

Medical bills and loss of work that have led to credit card debt is a common thread that has sent many Utah families down the path to bankruptcy. Some worry about losing their car, and worse, losing their home.

“People are losing their jobs, that is why they are calling,” said Sylvia Bosen, a paralegal who works for the Utah Legal Services, an organization that provides legal help for low-income Utahns.

Utah Legal Services is an organization that assists in a wide array of legal help to direct citizens through the complicated court system. Bosen works in the bankruptcy division. She helps Utah Legal Services with necessary documents and even appoints lawyers, free of charge.

Bosen said many citizens do not understand certain rights and exemptions they may have. “A lot of them have equity in their home [and] they [are eligible] to get a certain amount,” she said.

Bosen said most of the calls she receives are from families, rather than from individuals. She said people are afraid they will lose assets essential to their family’s way of life.

“When a person or business find [themselves] in a financial pit from which [they] cannot escape without help, bankruptcy may be an alternative,” said Matthew Boley, chair of the bankruptcy section at the Utah State Bar .

Boley has participated in discussions with Utah Legal Services and the Utah Bankruptcy Lawyers Forum in an effort to encourage lawyers to participate in pro bono work.

Those who go to the Utah Legal Services will have to meet the eligibility requirements that are determined based on monthly income. Then, if qualified, a representative will walk the client through the bankruptcy process and offer a pro bono attorney to assist with documents and court.

Kai Wilson is the executive director of “…And Justice for All,” a nonprofit association that serves as an umbrella organization over Utah Legal Services, the Disability Law Center and the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. Wilson said Utah Legal Services faces some challenges.

“[There have been] huge drops in support from banks,” Wilson said, which causes worries because financial institutions usually provide a lot of monetary support for the legal organizations. In addition, state and federal budget cuts will most likely take even more money out of Utah Legal Services and the other legal aid foundations. Utah Legal Services receives about 80 percent of its budget from government grants.

It is important to provide these services because “so many people can’t get in [to the justice system],” Wilson said. “Our system of law is extraordinary, but access to it is very limited.”

According to a booklet published by Utah Legal Services and “…And Justice for All”, roughly 80 percent of low-income citizens are not aware of their option to acquire free legal assistance. And many of those who know about these services do not think they would qualify for help.

Bosen said as the rate of bankruptcy rises among citizens, it is important to understand available options. The right to file for bankruptcy as a tool to consolidate debt and seek financial relief is a legal alternative in difficult financial times.

She said many people don’t know their benefits and rights as citizens. A lot of individuals worry about being sent to jail for not paying bills and don’t understand that certain exemptions apply, like unemployment and retirement benefits.

“If a person or business receives competent bankruptcy advice and good representation, there should not be any mistakes,” Boley said. “Each individual, married couple or business that may be considering bankruptcy should consult with a qualified and experienced bankruptcy attorney that can explain the bankruptcy process, the costs in time, expense and credit and alternatives to bankruptcy.”

Utah Legal Services provides a bankruptcy hotline that Utahns can call to find basic information and learn about procedures and their rights: (801) 374-6766, ext. 3446.