By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Bar has long championed broader access to the justice system.
Its “aspirational goal” is that each lawyer licensed to practice in Utah donates 50 hours of pro bono representation a year, says Utah State Bar president James D. Gilson.
“If someone has a legal problem and they can’t afford to hire a lawyer, they’re at a real disadvantage in the system. We think that lawyers who have law licenses have an ethical duty to provide pro bono legal representation,” Gilson said.
While the Bar doesn’t police that expectation, Gilson said most lawyers meet that goal. “A lot of them do a lot more than 50 hours a year,” he said.
Even with that expectation, a Legal Defender system that provides free legal assistance to indigent defendants facing felony charges and nonprofit community law offices that serve very low-income people on civil matters free of charge, the Bar is keenly aware of the significant unmet legal needs of people who don’t quality for free legal assistance and can’t afford fees charged by law firms, Gilson said.
That was the impetus for the Utah Bar’s Modest Means Lawyer Referral program, which helps people with modest incomes and assets obtain legal help at discounted rates. There is a $25 application fee. People who qualify are referred to lawyers who charge $50 to $75 an hour or a flat fee for certain services.
The program is intended for people who make from 125 percent to 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
Lawyers who participate in the program can provide full representation or offer limited-scope representation, which can include appearing in court on behalf of a client at a critical hearing or reviewing documents the client has created.
“The Modest Means program is exciting because it’s a real win-win for lawyers who are trying to develop a practice and clients who can’t afford to pay standard hourly rates,” Gilson said.
Young, less experienced lawyers are assisted by an advisory panel. Participating attorneys are also paired with a mentor for an entire year.
Some of the 200 participating lawyers include seasoned attorneys who have elected to participate in the modest means program because they are seeking a way to give back while still receiving some income.
The program offers assistance in a wide array of legal matters including family law, adoption, bankruptcy, criminal law, landlord-tenant issues and consumer law among others.
Modest Means does not handle personal injury, immigration, contract writing or claims in federal court. A full listing is available on the bar’s website.
Gilson said the legal system has become so complex “that it’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t have a law degree to represent themselves.”
That’s where the Modest Means program can help. When people are represented by counsel, their rights are better protected and courts operate more efficiently, he said.
“If you have two unrepresented parties, the judge, in effect, has to educate the parties what the law is. That’s not a role a judge should be performing,” he said.