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LEGAL SERVICES TO CLOSE TOOELE OFFICE, CLINIC

Utah Legal Services will close its Tooele office and the clinic that provides legal assistance for the homeless.

Those cutbacks are just the tip of the iceberg as the office prepares for what appear to be major funding cuts from Congress.Legal Services offices in each state receive federal funding to provide assistance to low-income people in noncriminal matters. This year, nationwide, the program received $400 million from Congress.

In passing the State Justice and Commerce Bill, the House of Representatives reduced funding for legal services offices nationally by more than one-third, to $278 million. If the Senate approves the cuts, Utah's program will have to reduce staff and possibly close offices.

The House completely eliminated funding for Legal Services attorneys to represent American Indians and migrant farm workers, plus created a "long shopping list of restrictions" to what attorneys can and cannot do," said Bruce Plenk, litigation coordinator for Utah Legal Services.

"Some are quite puzzling," he said. "For example, Legal Services lawyers no longer can file a class-action suit against any part of the government. . . . If you have 400 people who had food stamps taken away contrary to the law, it doesn't make any sense" to litigate them one by one.

The law also forbids litigation of any kind concerning welfare reform.

It bans collection of legal fees from nongovernmental parties. Right now, Legal Services recoups fees from abusive spouses ordered by judges to pay lawyers' fees in divorce cases. They also collect from companies that have defrauded someone.

"If that restriction stays on, if we took cases, the company that did the defrauding would get a break of not having to pay lawyers' fees," Plenk said.

They would be forbidden to represent prisoners, which isn't done much anyway in Utah.

In the past, such restrictions have applied to use of federal funds. But Legal Services has been able to use the other 15 percent of its funding to take care of such cases. Under the House bill, the restrictions would apply to all cases, regardless of whether they are federally funded or not.

Each state's Legal Services is a nonprofit corporation with a local board of directors - most members selected by the bar association. Plenk sees irony in a Congress that talks about returning choices and power to the states while putting blanket restrictions on the actions the local boards can take.

Last year, Legal Services assisted 14,400 people statewide. Of those, 4,500 dealt with housing issues, from explaining eviction law to representing people who are trying to get money back from a landlord.

Family law made up 3,800 cases, most of them domestic violence. (The Salt Lake office doesn't handle domestic violence because Legal Aid Society of Utah does.) Another 1,800 cases were consumer cases and the same number dealt with income maintenance involving programs like Supplemental Security Income, unemploy- ment compensation and welfare. The rest ranged from helping senior citizens with health care and wills to school fees.

Utah has Legal Services offices in Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, Price, Monticello and Cedar City.