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Report: Legal help out of reach for many low-income Utahns

Analysis offers pre-coronavirus picture of how many were hiring attorneys in civil cases

SHARE Report: Legal help out of reach for many low-income Utahns
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SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utahns who wind up in court for civil matters like debt collection, eviction and employment issues do so with no attorney, a new report finds.

The recent analysis from the nonprofit Utah Foundation also says more than 2 in 3 low-income Utahns don’t think they could afford to hire a lawyer if they needed one.

The figures illustrate a shortage of low-cost or free legal help in the Beehive State that creates an uneven playing field in the courts, said Shawn Teigen, the report’s lead author.

“If 69% of households that need a lawyer can’t afford one, you’re not going to be closing that gap anytime soon,” Teigen said.

The report comes as the Utah Supreme Court calls for new ideas on how to bridge the gap. In an effort to help, it plans to relax some professional rules for lawyers, allowing them to provide legal services in smaller chunks and go into business with social workers, tech entrepreneurs and others.

The new report is based in large part on a random survey of 900 Utahns living at twice the poverty level, about $25,000 for an individual and $52,000 for a family of four. More than half of low-income households reported facing a legal issue — mostly tied to finances, jobs and health care — and many were dealing with several at once.

Teigen estimates more than 200,000 Utahns at the same income threshold are in need of legal services.

“There are people whose lives are devastated by debt, housing, employment, domestic, health and violence issues they cannot address within the legal system because of lack of money and resources,” retired Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham said in a statement. “This report must be a call to action.”

Of those who sought help, about half found it, either by hiring an attorney, getting a hand from an agency, finding free legal assistance or going online, the foundation reports. But help is harder to come by in rural communities home to fewer lawyers, according to the report that considers 2019 data from the courts, interviews with about 800 who have sought legal help from the United Way of Salt Lake and the random survey.

The new numbers don’t illustrate the more recent effects of the coronavirus, which have stolen work from more than 100,000 in Utah, stoked fears of eviction among renters and played a role in what authorities say are rising rates of domestic violence. But the analysis shows how accessible attorneys are in a good economy, a measure that will come in handy as state leaders and others seek to better track the issue going forward, Teigen said.

In the criminal justice system, public defenders provide free legal counsel to Utahns who cannot afford an attorney, but those embroiled in civil cases are not guaranteed representation.

Of the roughly 100,000 civil cases in Utah last year, about 62,000 were filed by debt collectors, nearly all of whom hired an attorney, the report says. On the other side, just 2% of those summoned to court in debt collection cases had legal counsel.

The picture has long been uneven in Utah and across the country, said Kim Paulding, executive director of the Utah Bar Foundation, but it is still dismaying.

“I was sad to see that almost no one has an attorney if they’re defending their claim,” she said. “We as a community are just barely starting to scratch the surface of providing education, advice and representation in the areas of debt collection and eviction defense.”

Paulding’s nonprofit, which awards grants to groups providing legal help to low-income and disabled Utahns, commissioned the review to see if it’s sending money where it’s needed, she said. The board will consider that question when it meets later this month.

Paulding said she is heartened by a recent change allowing law school graduates in Utah to complete pro-bono hours instead of sitting down for the bar exam, and another that allows paralegals with extra trainingto counsel clients.

The Utah Foundation calls for government and private groups to soak more money into social agencies that help Utahns who can’t cough up the median $200 hourly rate in Utah, Teigen said. It also urges attorneys and law firms — many of whom already provide free legal help — to boost their pro-bono offerings.

Other findings in the report:

  • Domestic violence was the least reported legal issue in the survey, but those victimized in their homes said it was the most severe issue they were dealing with.
  • Those facing legal problems tied to their jobs reported they had been forced to work overtime or less favorable shifts, or that employers withheld pay and benefits or sent paychecks late.

Those seeking legal help can dial United Way of Salt Lake’s 2-1-1 hotline for help in English or Spanish or visit utahlegalhelp.org.