The high cost of legal services has become a barrier to not just the poor, but the middle class as well. – Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's court system needs to be accessible to all residents, regardless of income or whether they can afford an attorney, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court said Monday.
The nature of people using the courts is changing, Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant said. Last year, 57 languages had to be interpreted in Utah courtrooms. Also, the number of litigants showing up to court without a lawyer is on the rise.
This year, neither party in 56 percent of domestic cases had a lawyer, he said. A recent survey showed 70 percent of respondents felt the cost of hiring an attorney would be an obstacle if they were to face a court matter.
"This should be troubling to all of us," Durrant told Utah lawmakers in the annual state-of-the-judiciary speech. "And yet for many in today's YouTube society, do-it-yourself is the first choice, even if cost is not a barrier, and even for something as complex as a court proceeding."
Legal problems are not limited to the wealthy, yet too often the services of lawyers are, he said.
"The high cost of legal services has become a barrier to not just the poor, but the middle class as well," said Durrant, who was sworn in as chief justice last March.
Durrant said a critical part of his job is making sure "our courts are like a big tent with its flaps wide open, with room for everyone, not like a walled fortress accessible only to a few."
The courts have addressed those concerns with a number of resources, including a court-run, statewide self-help center, an online assistance program and Utah Legal Services, he said. The Utah State Bar has started a pro bono initiative to help those with the greatest need.
Durrant said Utahns often come to the courts at critical times in their lives. Their business, family, financial future and freedom might be at stake.
"They deserve a judge who is fair, impartial and committed to fairly applying the law to the facts," he said. "They deserve a judge who is uninfluenced by public opinion, position, power, race, gender or anything beyond the law and the facts."
A fair judiciary is critical to the state's economic success, Durrant said. A fair and impartial judiciary not only benefits those doing business in the state, but also plays a key role in those considering locating to Utah, he said.
Durrant said Utah's court system is held in high regard around the nation. Its structure, judicial selection and retention process, innovative juvenile courts, dispute resolution and technology are models for others to emulate, he said.