A young mother remains in an abusive marriage because she can't afford an attorney and doesn't know she has an alternative.
A secretary tolerates inappropriate sexual advances from her boss because she doesn't understand there are laws protecting her.And a divorced woman moves her family five times in a year into cheaper housing because she is afraid to go to court to enforce child-support payments.
These are just a few of the situations Utah women become "trapped in" because they don't understand their legal rights, contends Aileen H. Clyde, a member of the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century and chairwoman of the Utah Gender and Justice Task Force.
To educate women about their legal rights - in understandable, non-legalese terms - "Utah Women and the Law: A Resource Handbook" has been compiled and is now available for a minimal cost of $3.
"The handbook is candid, addressing real-life issues in a professional but conversational manner," Clyde said. "The book doesn't substitute the assistance of an attorney, if that's what is needed, but it gives solid advice so women can understand what their legal rights and responsibilities are."
The book is a second edition to the original published in 1987.
"Laws are constantly in flux - like protective orders and rape laws. This book gives updated information. Readers will not need to make crucial decisions based on rumor or hearsay, but on facts. It gives them more power to direct their lives."
As chairwoman of the Gender and Justice Task Force, Clyde heard hundreds of women testify about bias they have faced in Utah courts. She was deeply disturbed by what she heard from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
"Sadly, there definitely is bias in the courts - most of it directed against women," she said. "But it's not unique to our Utah culture. Unfortunately, it's an attitude that is pervasive nationwide - rooted in the times when women were considered property."
The gender task force reported many instances of bias, including:
- That women victims fail to report violence because they fear skepticism in courts about their credibility.
- That victims of sexual assault describe feelings of victimization forced upon them by the justice system. They don't know victims have rights.
- That many fathers threaten a custody battle (even if they don't want custody) to browbeat their wives on economic issues.
In a Dan Jones poll conducted for the Commission of Justice in the 21st century, 86 percent of Utahns reported that fair access to Utah courts is a major problem.
"The fact is that justice varies according to what you can afford. If you need to go to court for any reason, it's going to cost. If you have a highly specialized lawyer, it's going to cost more," said Clyde.
"Attorneys know they are more likely to get paid well by male clients, instead of women clients. Fair access to court too frequently is determined by the pocketbook."
Denise Dragoo, president of Utah Women Lawyers Inc., visits shelters for battered women and is shocked by the misinformation victims have regarding the law. "Many women have broken arms and jaws and are bruised all over from spouse abuse. They need basic protection but don't know how it get it under the law."
Utah Women Lawyers purchased 150 copies of the new handbook to give to shelters and other social agencies.
Dr. Colleen Colton applauds the efforts of the Governor's Commission for Women and Families to inform women of their legal rights. Attorneys devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to research andwrite the handbook.
Colton, administrative assistant to Gov. Norm Bangerter, said the first edition of the handbook sold out quickly, and requests continue to pour in.
"When a landlord unfairly evicts a woman and her children, it can leave them homeless, forcing them on the street. This handbook teaches women legal rights ranging from what to look for in a lease to understanding alimony laws.
"Knowing the law is the first step for a woman to improve her resources, her circumstances and defend her rights."- The "Utah Women and the Law" handbook is available at A Woman's Place Bookstore and at the Commission for Women and Families Office, B-11 State Capitol, Salt Lake City, UT 84114; Phone: 538-1736.
Question-answer format gets to core of issues
"Utah Women and the Law: A Resource Handbook," compiled by the Utah Governor's Commission for Women and Families, answers many legal questions. Here are a few examples:
QUESTION: What is sexual harassment?
ANSWER: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." Both men and women can commit sexual harassment. For you to have a legal claim, harassment must be related to a job or job conditions. For example, if a promotion is conditioned upon sexual favors, the condition constitutes harassment. Consult the EEOC or an attorney to determine whether you should take legal recourse.
QUESTION: Can I be denied a promotion or fired because I am pregnant?
ANSWER: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a 1978 amendment, provides that women affected by pregnancy and related conditions must be treated the same as other applicants and employees on the basis of their actual ability or inability to work. You can't be fired or refused a job or promotion merely because you are pregnant or have had an abortion. You can't be forced to take maternity leave if you can still work.
QUESTION: I was sexually abused as a child but no one ever knew. As an adult, do I have any legal recourse or right to treatment?
ANSWER: The law provides that you can file criminal charges only within one year of when you first learned about the abuse, not necessarily one year from the time it happened. The cutoff point for filing a civil suit for emotional distress is two years from the time it occurred. Get advice from an attorney if you are unsure about your circumstances.
QUESTION: To get a divorce, do I have to hire a lawyer?
ANSWER: The law states that a person may act as his or her own lawyer and may represent himself or herself in court. But since legal proceedings are quite specialized and complicated, a person without legal training could have a difficult time with the technical procedures of the court. However, a person without an attorney can handle her own simple uncontested divorce.
QUESTION: What is a permanent injunction?
ANSWER: A permanent injunction is a final court order included in a divorce decree that permanently orders a husband or wife to do or not to do something. For example, if your husband has harassed you at work or at home, a part of the divorce decree may "enjoin and restrain" him from such harassment. If this order is violated, he may be found in contempt of court and punished after a full court hearing.
QUESTION: What if my husband is not paying child support?
ANSWER: If your husband has been ordered to pay support and does not do so, you can take him back to court, where he will be ordered to pay. If you can't afford to hire a lawyer to help collect back child support, you can apply to the State Office of Recovery Services for help (538-4400).
QUESTION: What if I want to change the amount of child support that my husband is paying?
ANSWER: The amount of child support may be modified if there is a material or substantial change in circumstances. The court will review the needs of the child and the parent's ability to pay. Affidavits substantiating the requested change, including both parents' income and expenses, must be submitted. You begin the procedure by filing a motion for an order to show cause in district court.
QUESTION: Can a creditor deny me credit because of my husband's bankruptcy?
ANSWER: If you did not file a joint bankruptcy petition with your husband and you are applying for an unsecured loan which you alone are responsible for repaying, a creditor may not legally deny you the loan because of your husband's bankruptcy.
QUESTION: What should I do if I need a lawyer and don't know one?
ANSWER: If you need to enforce or defend your legal rights, call the Utah State Bar's Lawyer Referral Office (531-9075). When you call the attorney, tell him or her that you were referred by the bar. The attorney is obligated to meet with you for an initial half-hour consultation for $15.
QUESTION: What if I can't afford a lawyer?
ANSWER: Based on financial need determined by a family's gross monthly income, two agencies provide legal services to low-income residents. The Legal Aid Society (328-8849) specializes in problems involving domestic and family law. Another agency, Utah Legal Services (328-8891), focuses on cases involving welfare payments, Medicaid and landlord-tenant issues.
The American Civil Liberties Union specializes in problems based upon violations of civil liberties such as discrimination or free speech (521-9289).