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Coronavirus jump-starts call for ideas on new, low-cost legal services

Long-planned push to make Utah courts more fair picks up speed amid virus concerns

The Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City.
The Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Those at the highest level of the state’s justice system want to connect more Utahns to free or low-cost legal help as the coronavirus dissolves jobs and stokes fears of eviction.

The Utah Supreme Court announced Friday it is bumping up a longtime plan to make the system more fair by allowing non-lawyers to chip in. The state’s high court is calling for pitches from programmers, entrepreneurs or anyone else with ideas on how to help people navigate the complicated court system — no bar license required.

One potential example is a tenant-rescue app that analyzes a person or a business’ eviction paperwork and can determine how to respond, get help and issue a quote on attorney fees, said courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah.

A task force of judges, lawyers and others has spent roughly a year hashing out a proposal to relax some professional standards for lawyers in Utah and had been working on the finishing touches in recent weeks, Fattah said.

The proposed changes would allow attorneys to offer legal services a la carte and to go into business with tech workers, therapists or others for the first time. And while a 90-day comment period on the proposal opened Friday, the high court said it will review the pitches for new tools earlier than that.

Justice Deno Himonas, who heads the task force, calls the move a “sandbox” that allows for experimentation, but not without scrutiny. A new office under the Utah Supreme Court will review the pitches, choose which go forward and regulate the new services. Its leadership has not yet been announced.

In the past, lawyers have donated time to help certain clients for free, but that’s no longer enough, Himonas said.

“For decades, we in the legal profession have tried to volunteer ourselves across the access-to-justice gap. Under that approach, we’ve witnessed the gap grow into a crisis. And now COVID-19 and its aftermath threaten so many of us with severe legal consequences,” he said in a statement.

More than 130,000 in the Beehive State have filed jobless claims to date, with some reporting delays in receiving unemployment checks.

In order to help those who suddenly found themselves out of work, Gov. Gary Herbert has ordered a temporary moratorium on evictions for those who lost jobs or wages due to the pandemic. The hold expires May 15, when any missed rent is due in full.

The high court’s Friday announcement came as courts across the state reminded Utahns they remain open to answer questions by phone or email and handle several types of cases.

For example, Utahns can now file for protective orders or stalking injunctions online, a change that comes as authorities report an uptick in domestic violence cases.

And while no jury trials will take place until at least June, 4th District Presiding Judge Jennifer Brown emphasized that criminal cases still are going forward for those awaiting trial in jail.

Many of the proceedings now are held over video, including hearings in civil cases such as evictions and child custody disputes, said Brown, whose judicial district includes Utah, Wasatch and Juab Counties.

Brown said that she had never anticipated court hearings would be held online and misses being in her courtroom, but feels gratified the wheels of justice still are churning. She said the courts are being creative in finding ways to respect public-health guidelines and still uphold a person’s constitutional rights.

“People need access to the courts even in a pandemic, so the ability to do that for the public is really critical,” Brown said.