Christmas Season -- a time for giving, peace on earth and goodwill to all. Not exactly the time most of us think (or want to think) about the law.
Yes, there may still be a few new personal injury lawsuits due to Black Friday stampeding, but the majority of us are nestled in our homes against the cold and the inversion.
So this Thursday, I was interested to see on the front page of the Standard-Examiner, an article about the fine work of Utah Legal Services in helping a woman with multiple sclerosis keep her housing. Utah Legal Services is part of a larger national non-profit corporation established by Congress in 1974, the Legal Services Corporation, whose board is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, whose objective is to provide non-criminal legal services for those below the poverty level.
Funding for Utah Legal Services comes in through numerous sources, but the one consistent feature is that there is never enough money to provide the staff and attorneys needed for the work that is available. This means that the services provided are determined through a screening process that by necessity leaves many unrepresented. (To give you an idea of just how under-funded, Utah Legal Services gets only $8.78 for each potential client. $8.78 doesn't cover the actual cost of creating a file.)
Unlike criminal law, the Constitution does not require or guarantee legal representation in civil cases, so the problem of providing legal representation to those that need and require it is a daunting problem, not just of the legal profession, but society in general. The Standard caught the "good news" story of the mother and daughter saved from homelessness, but what about the unaccounted for who didn't have an attorney protecting their rights?
Contrary to popular opinion, lawyers actually have a heart and are actively concerned about creating a legal system that provides justice in both the civil and criminal realm, regardless of income or societal status. The vision of a just society is an inspiring ideal everyone, including the legal profession, strives toward. Every attorney is asked to commit to 50 hours of pro bono work a year. Numerous non-profit organizations work to provide legal services. Yet, the ideal just society remains one that is still out of reach.
Recently. I got an email from the Utah Pro Bono Commission, one of the branches of the Utah State Bar that is actively working to increase the access to legal services statewide. The email had the traditional festive holiday greeting with smiling snowmen getting ready to hurl snowballs at each other, I suppose in an unintentional nod to both the legal system's adversarial nature and the requirements of civility for lawyers. But the snowball hurling snowmen, hid a rather ominous fact -- more than 80,000 cases involving low income individuals had no attorney involvement last year in Utah. If you find yourself in a lawsuit without an attorney, even if your cause is just, your chances are about as good as a snowman's chance in a very hot place.
So if you find that you have a legal lump of coal in your stocking, go to http://www.utahbar.org/public-services/ and look at all of the services available and find the legal help you need. And may we all have a Merry Christmas and a Just New Year.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or email@example.com.