ST. GEORGE—The cost of legal representation today is often prohibitive and might be said to deny persons their day in court, availability of remedies, and the ability to bring or defend against civil claims. The Utah State Bar has introduced a new program for its lawyers to further support the community: Modest Means Lawyer Referral.
The first Utah Supreme Court rule for the State Bar’s regulation of the practice of law is “to advance the administration of justice,” Bar President Lori Nelson said. “Making the justice system accessible to all, without regard to economic status, is a top priority for the more than 8,000 active lawyers of the Utah State Bar.”
How the program works
Lawyers will provide affordable legal assistance to people with non-extensive assets and who make from 125 percent to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (for example, up to $70,000 for a family of four). The discounted hourly rates are $50 or $75, depending upon financial circumstances.
The types of legal aid provided
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees an accused the right to assistance of counsel in his defense. And while this right is specific to criminal proceedings at trial, it has been expanded by courts to include the right to counsel at critical stages in judicial proceedings.
“It’s pretty much available for all types of law,” Sean Toomey, Communications Director of the Utah State Bar said of the Modest Means Referral Program. This includes civil matters, probate, administrative proceedings, estates, etc. “On the criminal side, most people can take advantage of the public defender system so the program is primarily for civil where there is no right to an attorney,” Toomey said.
Effectiveness of counsel provided / Benefits for the attorney
“They’re all in good standing with the bar,” Toomey said of the attorneys who are members of the program. “And there are two types of attorneys that will sign up: One is a seasoned attorney who wants to give back and this is the way of essentially donating services while still receiving some income, so they can do pro bono or modest means which is up to a 75 percent donation.
“The other type of lawyer,” Toomey said, “is someone who is just starting out and this is a good way to build a practice. For those people we have an advisory panel for their questions.”
The advisory panel is provided to attorneys who may have questions about certain situations with which they may be unfamiliar. The panel also provides the attorney with a dedicated mentor for an entire year.
“Another thing that can happen in smaller numbers,” Toomey said, “is for someone who wants to try a new area of law.” Again, the attorney may take advantage of the panel of advisers for this new area. “We try to do something for both the public and the attorneys,” Toomey said.
The Utah Bar Guidelines to apply for the program may be found by clicking here.
“No documents are required at the time of application,” Toomey said. “They have to meet the income requirements and asset requirements that are on the Utah state bar website. On the assets, it explains what’s not included.”
It is primarily an honor system; however, each lawyer may ask that the guidelines be strictly met at their own discretion.
Pro Bono and the Modest Means Program
Last year, the Bar initiated the Pro Bono Commission, expanding legal services to those unable to pay (those with incomes less than 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines). A recent survey of lawyers indicated that 70 percent of the Utah bar is engaged in pro bono work on a weekly basis, embracing one of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct: “A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico (for the public good) legal services per year.”
While lawyers do offer pro bono services, these are provided at their own discretion. Lawyers are not mandated to offer pro bono services and there is no right to them. The Modest Means Lawyer referral program connects people with lawyers who are interested in this sort of aid for the aforementioned reasons.
Issues with self-representation
According to the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, more people are self-representing in court; and nearly 50 percent of those appearing for divorces do so without lawyers.
“Judges of both district and justice courts find consistent problems with self-represented parties expecting judges and court staff to provide legal advice,” the Committee on Resources for Self-Represented Parties reported to the Judicial Council, “failing to understand rules of procedure and evidence, failing to bring necessary witnesses and evidence to court, and refusing to accept the court’s rulings.”
“It’s difficult for a layperson to effectively participate in Utah’s courts because of the complicated nature of the law, and complex rules of evidence and procedure,” Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake Executive Director Stewart Ralphs said. “As a result, an unrepresented litigant may not obtain the same benefits from the courts as a represented one.”
Through this lawyer referral program, clients can hire a lawyer for full representation, and the lawyer will create all documents and make all court appearances. Alternatively — which will make working with a lawyer even more affordable — lawyers can provide limited-scope representation, such as coaching, appearing at a critical hearing, or reviewing documents that the client creates.
The American Bar Association recently released a resolution to “… encourage practitioners, when appropriate, to consider limiting the scope of their representation as a means of increasing access to legal services.”
The Utah State Bar was established in 1931, and its lawyers are advancing a justice system that is understood, valued and accessible to all. See more at utahbar.org.
St. George News Reporter Sarah Isaacson contributed to this report.
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