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How a new program connects Utahns to lower-cost legal advice

Utah becomes 2nd state to create more affordable alternative to attorneys

Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas answers questions during an interview in his office at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.
Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas answers questions during an interview in his office at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As if heartache isn’t difficult enough on its own.

When April, a secretary in Davis County and a mother of four, first sought an annulment last year, she downloaded legal forms only to find they may as well have been written in another language.

She couldn’t afford an attorney and had planned on navigating the process herself, making her own case to prove her husband had misled her. But she quickly realized she would need help deciphering the court terms and navigating the complicated legal steps.

“It’s very overwhelming, because I wasn’t familiar enough with the jargon and what was going to be expected” in court, April, who asked to be identified only by her first name, recalled. “I was like, ‘Do I just stick it out and deal with it? What should I do?’”

She had another option under a new effort to connect Utahns to legal services they can afford: a nonlawyer who is licensed to counsel clients.

The program is starting small, with a first wave of four licensed legal practitioners at work since October. They work mainly in three types of cases: divorce and family law cases like April’s, debt collections up to $11,000, and landlord-tenant issues like evictions.

At the direction of the state’s high court and the agency that trains lawyers, the legal practitioners can now file paperwork and give a person legal advice, participate in mediations and help negotiate settlements. Previously, only attorneys could do all that.

It’s a move to make Utah courts more fair as most entangled in civil cases in the state are forgoing an attorney and choosing to represent themselves.

“They can’t go up to the bench, argue a case. They can’t even sit at the defense table in court, but they can do really important things in terms of counseling the client,” said Scotti Hill, the program’s administrator. “And if that client does need to go into court, they can arm them with all the information they need to get up to the podium and speak to the judge themselves.”

Utah is the second state to grant a legal license to someone other than an attorney, following Washington, where technicians are permitted to practice only family law.

Hill said the requirements are rigorous and the process modeled on that of attorneys. A law degree isn’t needed, but a person must earn at least an associate degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree in any subject; obtain 1,500 hours of law experience; and pass a three-month online course at Utah Valley University. They must also pass a character review at the Utah State Bar.

Angie Allen, a paralegal practitioner in Layton, has helped April navigate a pile of paperwork and craft her strategy to legally void her marriage. The case is pending.

“Without her help, there’s no way I could convince the judge,” April said. “It’s just too overwhelming to do it alone.”

She now realizes the arguments she once thought were strongest are actually not useful, and others she hadn’t thought of are better.

A mother of four who spent more than a decade as a stay-at-home mom, April is exactly the sort of person Allen seeks to help.

Jeff Daybell, a staff attorney for the Utah State Bar’s Access to Justice office, left, and Mackenzie Hirai, coordinator for the office, work on cases for those facing evictions and debt collection in the hallway at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The Access to Justice office helps people who cannot afford an attorney.
Jeff Daybell, a staff attorney for the Utah State Bar’s Access to Justice office, left, and Mackenzie Hirai, coordinator for the office, work on cases for those facing evictions and debt collection in the hallway at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The Access to Justice office helps people who cannot afford an attorney.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Allen, a paralegal of nearly 20 years, is focused on assisting women, especially those who don’t work outside the home, who need legal advice related to divorce or other family issues but can’t fork over thousands of dollars in return.

“It’s been amazing to answer questions for people and use my knowledge to say, ‘I’ve got this, I can do this now,” she said. “This is a step to move into the 21st century with legal representation.”

The paralegal practitioner program is one of several moves in play to make the state’s courts more fair as an increasing number of Utahns forgo an attorney. They are born out of a task force focused on helping more Utahns get justice in the courts.

It’s not just the poor who are going it alone, said Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas, a co-chairman of the group. In 2018, at least one party was unrepresented in 93% of civil and family law cases in Utah’s 3rd District Court.

“At a rate of $500, $600-plus an hour, I couldn’t afford to hire me in a case,” Himonas said. “Only the most well-heeled, moneyed interests have the ability to do that. For one of our three branches of government, that’s a big problem.”

It’s a problem that eats up court time, exasperates those involved and delays any possible resolution. For example, if a judge repeatedly rejects documents in a divorce case because they’re not right, a couple may drop their legal case out of frustration but run into other complex legal issues if one person has a baby with someone else.

Lawyers have typically helped try to fix the problem by volunteering their time, but the gap continues to grow.

“It’s not for lack of effort, it just hasn’t worked. It’s not been enough,” Himonas said.

And the legal profession simply has failed to modernize.

“If you threw a lawyer from the early 1900s in a courtroom, she would probably do just fine. But if you threw a surgeon from the 1900s in a modern OR, they would flounder. We’ve not kept the pace, right? So we have to update our court processes.”

The updates are taking several forms.

They include a fully online small-claims court and an invitation to startups to pitch high-tech legal resources, such as a computer program that could provide legal advice based on data about a person’s case.

Himonas and Hill note that it’s not cheap to become a lawyer, either. Tuition at the University of Utah’s law school for those already in Utah is about $28,000.

Getting certified as a legal practitioner can cost roughly $600 for paralegals who already are working; or $10,000 for a person who has yet to complete an associate’s degree or higher.

Amber Alleman, a longtime paralegal, was one of the first four to be certified in Utah.

She now charges clients $75 an hour, what she estimates to be one-fourth of the fee for a lawyer. An employee of the Salt Lake City law firm Clyde Snow, she can refer a person to an attorney if she runs into a tricky legal issue that requires more expertise.

In the past, she often fielded calls from people who sought answers to basic questions.

“They just wanted some brief legal knowledge to know what their rights were in their case before they decided to go forward,” Alleman said.

Now, she added, “I let them know their rights and go from there.”