Lawyers have the professional responsibility to increase accessibility to the courts by lowering fees and offering more free service, Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam contends.
Attorneys are the brunt of jokes (which Van Dam does not find funny) because they are perceived as elitists who have separated themselves from most of society, Van Dam told jurists and students attending Law Day ceremonies Monday.Fees should be charged according to ability to pay, he suggested. Justice has become inaccessible to the common man because of high fees. High-powered attorneys pick and choose clients who can pay the most, ignoring the interest of justice.
"The average person has little access to lawyers . . . We scare people. We intimidate those who go through the system and don't want to go through it again," said Van Dam.
He criticized the justice system as being too cumbersome. A suit he filed as a private attorney in 1972 is still pending in a Utah court.
Because people want to solve their conflicts without waiting years for a court date, many civil matters are being handled through "privatization" by professional arbitrators.
More than 90 percent of the criminal cases are plea bargained because "there's no feasible way" of processing the burgeoning bulk of cases through the criminal system, he said.
The United States incarcerates more of its population than any other country. Forty-two American prisons are over-crowded. Teenagers are turning to murdering in gangs because the youth have no respect for the law.
"The fundamental problem does not have to do with the law, but with the attitude of people toward societal norms," said Van Dam. Change must come through education of the youth. Educators and lawyers must devote their time and energy to instilling a respect for democracy and the Constitution.
The attorney general warned that Salt Lake City "is not far behind the big cities" in crime. Gang crime is increasing; crack usage is on the rise, he said.
While he encouraged students to pursue a career in law, he warned them practicing law is "not what you see on `L.A. Law' or `Perry Mason."'
In his career, Van Dam has yet to see anything that slightly resembles the action that occurs on these courtroom dramas.
He's still waiting for a court scene in which a witness, a la "Perry Mason," breaks down on the witness stand and confesses to the murder before a full courtroom - and cameras.
"The practice of law is interesting and important. But don't be misled by the TV glamour," Van Dam said.