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HOW SHOULD UTAH IMPROVE THE WAY IT RENDERS JUSTICE?

While most Utahns think the state courts are doing a good job, they feel justice is inaccessible because of high attorney costs.

Eighty-six percent of those interviewed in an extensive, unprecedented series of public polls indicated the cost of litigation as a serious court problem.The polls, conducted by Dan Jones and Associates, are part of the most intense and sweeping self-examination of the court system in its history. The project, called "Doing Utah Justice," seeks to involve the public in identifying problems through a series of polls and town hearings.

A 28-member Commission of Justice in the 21st century, composed of court, state bar, legislative, business and religious leaders, is forging policies to address and identify problems in the legal system.

The poll exposed many areas of vulnerability in the state justice system.

Of great concern is Utahns' lack of confidence in the legal profession. Of 15 institutions mentioned in the poll - from the medical profession to the media - lawyers ranked lowest in public confidence. This frustration with attorneys is consistent with the attitude of a growing number of Utahns who say they can't afford their day in court.

Nearly 90 percent of those polled expressed eagerness to explore more flexible and less expensive methods of conflict resolution.

In response, Justice Commission members are studying the possibility of removing divorce cases from the adversarial court system, creating night courts, establishing a hot line to answer legal questions and promoting more accessible arbitration.

The commission's approach is bold, possibly requiring significant changes in policy and in law.

In the year that celebrated the bicentennial of the first session of the U.S. Supreme Court, Utahns remain strong supporters in belief of judicial independence and equality under the law.

But answers to several questions about the courts reveal serious gaps in people's knowledge. More than a third of those surveyed think it is up to a person accused of a crime to prove his innocence, despite the fact that in our justice system a person is always considered innocent until proven guilty.

The media needs to take serious note that nearly 70 percent expressed an interest in coverage of legal issues beyond sensational trials.

The Justice Commission should be urged to continue its responsiveness to public concerns as it approaches the next step in the Utah project - the forthcoming survey of judges and attorneys.

Meanwhile, a hearty round of applause is in order for this first-of-its-kind effort in the nation to deeply involve Utahns in deciding what they want their court's system to be.