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Utah State Bar starts free virtual legal consultations

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Bar is offering free legal consultation online for people in need and is preparing for a likely surge of calls, in part because of COVID-19.

“We anticipate that calls will start flooding in soon,” said Robert Jepson, director of the Access to Justice Office at the Utah State Bar. “People are likely dealing with personal and financial issues first and making sure they have their feet under them, then turning to legal issues next. We’re getting ready now so we’ll be ready if and when that happens.”

Jepson explained that he’s spoken to a number of his nonprofit colleagues and found that nobody has experienced any “major uptick yet” in callers seeking legal advice — with domestic violence and evictions being the exceptions.

For evictions especially, Jepson said they know there’s going to be a buildup of cases, which is why they are training staff to make sure they know the issues well.

As COVID-19 has reduced many Utahns’ income and caused the number of individuals filing for unemployment to soar to historic levels, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced a 45-day freeze on new evictions based on nonpayment on April 1. Evictions initiated prior to that day are not undone under the plan, nor do individuals who weren’t current on rent in March qualify. His executive order also allows certain Utahns to defer their monthly rent payments until May 15.

Under the governor’s order, the Department of Workforce Services also will provide free mediation for Utahns who believe they fit the criteria but still face eviction. As of Tuesday, the agency had not yet received any requests for mediation, said spokeswoman Christina Davis.

Since the governor’s announcement last week, landlords and property companies have sued more than 70 tenants in formal eviction proceedings across the state, with most along the Wasatch Front, court records show.

Previously, Utah State Bar volunteer attorneys only saw eviction clients once a week through a separate program, but given the anticipated surge of individuals who will need aid because of COVID-19, they are working to figure out a way to reach out to clients to help negotiate settlements throughout the week.

Jepson said the virtual legal clinic was launched about two weeks ago, though the office has been refining it as it has moved forward.

Clients can call, email or fill out an online form to receive help from a volunteer attorney knowledgeable in the specific area they are asking about. The attorney has 48 hours to reach out to the client after receiving the information to help with their issue and recommend additional resources in about 20 to 30 minutes of legal advice, Jepson explained.

The Access to Justice Office held in-person clinics prior to the virtual clinic’s launch.

Jepson said the office will definitely continue using the virtual clinic even after COVID-19 is no longer impacting day-to-day life because it is accessible for all, including those without reliable transportation and who live in remote areas.

“When COVID-19 hit we had a few building blocks in place, but it really pushed us to figure it all out quickly,” Jepson said. “I expect that every industry is having this trend where we are being forced to innovate, but then the innovations will stick around much longer than the virus.”

He said things have gone smoothly so far.

The Utah State Bar is not the only legal organization serving clients over the phone.

Jepson said the Utah Courts Self-Help Center and the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake do a similar program over the phone, as does the Timpanogos Legal Center which has done a great deal of online innovation and free over-the-phone services for clients for years.

“There are a lot of amazing organizations providing legal help in all different ways,” Jepson said. “It takes everyone pulling together to make it effective.”

Contributing: Annie Knox