March 6, 2014

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Programs Can Help Utahns Access Legal Services

By Peri Kinder

March 6, 2014

Chances are, if you have an intense pain in your side, you don’t research “appendectomy” online and perform your own surgery with a paring knife on the kitchen table. But many Utah residents do the legal equivalent of operating on themselves when they try to handle their own court cases or create legal documents from online sources.

While the consequences of performing your own surgery are much more calamitous than filling out your own legal documents, the mistakes caused by do-it-yourself legal representation can have long-lasting and devastating results.

James D. Gilson is the litigation chair at Callister, Nebeker & McCullough and is president elect of the Utah State Bar. He has practiced law for 25 years and has witnessed many people try the DIY legal program, with distressing outcomes. He often wonders why individuals believe they can figure out the legal system without professional help.

“It’s probably the perception that they can’t afford to hire an attorney,” Gilson says. “We’re trying to get the word out as a Bar that hiring a real-life Utah lawyer is something people ought to do—that they have value and they should consult with a real lawyer before turning to the internet.”

Gilson has seen too many people who have been scammed or have botched their own representation by not contacting an attorney. And while the cost can be intimidating, he believes the self-help clients will cause escalating trouble for themselves, until they finally realize they need to hire professional help.

“People go to a licensed, trained doctor when they have a health issue. But if you have a significant legal issue like a divorce or a business contract dispute, or you’re facing a criminal charge, by the same logic, one should seek advice from a trained professional.”

And people who represent themselves often get taken advantage of, or end up settling for much less than they were entitled to. “The other side has an attorney representing them, and if you don’t, you’re going against a trained lawyer, and the odds are stacked against you,” says Gilson.

The Utah State Bar is out to educate the public about accessing legal services. It has found the average person is intimidated by the court system, worried about prohibitive legal costs and unaware of the programs available that can minimize the costs of talking with an attorney.

Pro Bono Assistance

The Utah State Bar offers several programs for low-income people, including free legal assistance. In fact, attorneys are encouraged to perform at least 50 hours of pro bono services every year as part of their obligation to society. It is considered part of a lawyer’s responsibility to represent those who cannot afford legal costs.

The state’s Pro Bono Commission matches up requests with the right attorney and the best public assistance program to meet that client’s needs. Organizations such as Utah Legal Services, the Disability Law Center and the Crime Victim’s Legal Clinic provide help with issues ranging from housing disputes and consumer protection to immigration matters and domestic violence.

Another pro bono service includes legal clinics held on a regular basis so people can get advice at no charge. The Tuesday Night Bar is held every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Utah State Bar. This forum has no financial requirements, and individuals can discuss any legal topic with a licensed attorney.

Lawyers from several different fields including divorce, bankruptcy and injury are available to talk with clients for 20-30 minutes, giving advice about legal issues, reviewing contracts or pointing people in the right direction if they don’t know where to turn for legal help.

Attorneys hope having this resource available will dissuade people from turning to online sources and reduce the number of pro se (do-it-yourself) court cases.

“Because of the internet, there’s so much information out there and they think they can do it alone,” Gilson says. “They look up articles or they go to some website offering legal forms for free, or for a nominal cost, and they think this is just as good as going to a real live lawyer. And I feel that’s very shortsighted, because in the long run it’s going to cost those people a lot more.”

Modest Means Program

People who fit into the pro bono requirements can easily find the legal representation they need, but there is a significant segment of the population who don’t qualify for free legal aid because they make too much money or have too many assets, but they still can’t afford to hire a lawyer at regular rates.

For those individuals, the Modest Means Program comes into play. This new program matches clients with attorneys willing to work for a reduced fee—usually between $50 and $75 an hour. In the last year, lawyers took on more than 200 cases through this program.

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