Legal help available to those who lack lawyers

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2008 12:02 a.m. MDT

Whether it is a smart move or not, plenty of Utahns head to the courthouse without a lawyer to take on everything from a simple eviction to a contested divorce chock-full of complicated questions about finances and property, not to mention the emotional charged issues of child custody.

A 2006 survey of self-represented litigants showed most of them were reasonably satisfied with the services they got from the courts. However, judges and court staff found that self-represented people needed much more of the court's time than those with attorneys. Many self-represented people wanted courthouse employees to provide legal advice — which they cannot — and those without lawyers sometimes have unreasonable expectations about how their cases will turn out.

In addition, the self-represented individuals often don't understand how the courts work and end up not bringing the correct paperwork or necessary

witnesses.

Utah is taking steps to make it easier and better for people who cannot — or will not — hire an attorney to navigate the court system.

Salt Lake City Municipal Judge John Baxter heads a 20-member group, the Utah Judicial Council's Standing Committee on Resources for Self-Represented Parties, that has been addressing this issue for the past three years.

"We always tell people it's best to hire a lawyer — that's our position, period," said Baxter, referring to the committee's general goals.

"Should you choose to not hire a lawyer, we will do whatever we can to ensure that your encounter with the courts is productive from your side and efficient and productive from the court's side."

Baxter, who recently took part in a conference on the topic at Harvard Law School, is quick to note that self-representation is cropping up as a serious issue for courts nationwide.

Anecdotally, almost everyone has some story of a brother who got financially hosed in a divorce and still gets a raw deal on visitation, or a sister who isn't getting a dime in child support and works two jobs while her ex-husband vacations with a girlfriend in Florida. Nonetheless, many people still believe they can handle intricate legal matters themselves.

After a period of homework and investigation, Baxter said, the committee prepared a strategic plan to improve things for self-represented litigants and some of these changes are now in place. Among the latest innovations:

• A pilot project Self-Help Center in the state's 2nd and 8th court districts that will last through June 30, 2008. Center employees can be reached at 888-683-0009 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday. The center staff cannot offer any legal advice but can inform people about what paperwork to prepare for court, how to represent themselves and what must be done with a court order. The center staff also can make referrals to legal services and community resources. Help also can be obtained by e-mailing the staff at selfhelp@email.utcourts.gov. Right now, this help is available only in Daggett, Davis, Duchesne, Morgan, Uintah and Weber counties.

• Limited legal help, or "unbundling," in which attorneys who have agreed to take part will charge a smaller fee for helping with a portion of an individual's case. This concept has taken off in southern Utah with strong backing from 5th District Judge James Shumate and members of the Utah Bar in that area. People who cannot afford thousands of dollars for a case can sit down with a lawyer who can charge for certain areas of the case where it would be most helpful to have an attorney, with the individual doing the rest of the work.

Baxter said this is largely aimed at low-income individuals who may bypass hiring a lawyer because they don't have enough money.

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