Low-income legal help turns lives around

by PAIGE KASTELER

The need for legal aid is great among low-income Utahns. Two out of every three low-income households in Utah will face a civil legal problem every year. The average cost of legal services in Utah is about $10,000 — a cost few low-income families can probably afford.

These statistics were reported in a study done by “…And Justice For All,” a nonprofit organization designed to give legal assistance to low-income Utahns. Fortunately, there are many organizations like AJFA that can help.

The Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake is a private nonprofit organization that offers free and low-cost legal assistance in the area of family law, including divorce and help for victims of domestic violence.

Established in 1922, LAS has been assisting Utahns for almost a generation. LAS helped an estimated 22,000 low-income Utahns gain access to the legal system during 2008; that has been increasingly difficult to do, due to lack of funding.

Kai Wilson, executive director of AFJA, said these organizations are important because the legal system is becoming more specialized and only accessible to people with money. Wilson said the legal system is something everyone should have access to and dreams of a day when Utah will catch up to other states and have the funding to assist 20 percent of low-income individuals. Right now Utah assists 13 percent.

LAS receives half its funding from the state. Budget cuts and a drop in funding are a constant threat to LAS. The No. 1 thing that holds LAS back from helping more people is usually funding, which means that only those who need help the most can be assisted.

To qualify for legal assistance, paralegals at LAS look at several things. They take cases on the basis of severity of poverty, the type of case and the immediate need of the legal aid.

Rosario Martinez, 54, of Salt Lake City is one of those individuals who was turned away from LAS. After divorcing her abusive husband, Martinez sought help from LAS but was turned away during the screening process because she was not in any immediate danger from her ex-husband.

Martinez understands there are limits to how many people these organizations can help, but she does intend to keep on trying, especially now that her husband is trying to get out of paying child support.

While LAS cannot help everyone, it does assist many people each year. Stewart Ralphs, director of LAS, said the average client LAS sees is about 25 years old, has about two kids and usually is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LAS specializes in cases of domestic violence, specifically protective orders and stalking injunctions. It also offers help with domestic-relations cases, such as child custody and support, divorce, paternity and guardianship.

People seeking legal aid from LAS can apply at the Matheson Courthouse, 450 S. State St., in Salt Lake City. First there is a conflict check where paralegals determine if LAS will have any conflict representing the potential client. Then there is an intake interview with a paralegal who prepares the legal paperwork. This part takes about four to five hours, and is “not something you can do on your lunch hour,” Ralphs said. When the paperwork is completed, clients are assigned a lawyer to represent them through their legal needs. The average case takes about 45 days of legal work, which is relatively short; some legal cases can drag out for years.

These short legal cases often change clients’ lives forever.

One of these people is Susan, whose last name is being withheld for her safety. Susan filed a protective order against her physically abusive spouse to keep herself and her two children safe. But under the guise of visitation, Susan’s husband violated the protective order and took the children to Florida. LAS and the county attorney’s office in Florida arrested Susan’s husband. She flew to Florida to be reunited with her children and her spouse was extradited to Utah to face charges of custodial interference. Susan then filed for divorce.

She now has full custody of her children and is divorced from her abusive spouse, something she would have not been able to accomplish without the help of LAS.

Legal help brings new hope

by PAIGE KASTELER

Jennifer Edwards, a Salt Lake City resident who wanted to file for a divorce, received the help she needed from Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake (LAS), a nonprofit organization that provides legal aid to low-income individuals.

Edwards, like many other low-income individuals, needed legal help but couldn’t afford it. After losing her husband’s income, Edwards didn’t have the means to acquire legal help to assist her with her divorce and gaining child support. In doing research, she came across LAS.

“I knew they didn’t have the resources and time to give to my case like another for-profit lawfirm would have. But I knew I had to try it,” Edwards said.

When asked about her legal case, Edwards wondered where to begin. She can trace it back to 2005 when her estranged husband, Ray, kept avoiding Edwards’s attempts to go to mediation for divorce. Ray kept putting it off, claiming that he needed to save money to marry another woman. After Ray remarried, Edwards asked again to go to mediation. This time, she said Ray told her no. Edwards told him that she would take him to court.

“I guess he thought I was bluffing because he didn’t take me seriously. He never thought that I could afford to get legal help,” Edwards said.

That was partly true: Edwards was supporting herself and her daughter on just her income, without alimony or child support. After discovering LAS, she began the application process by going to the Matheson Courthouse and filling out some initial paperwork.

Stewart Ralphs, director of LAS, says this can take up to four to five hours. “It is not something you can do on your lunch break,” Ralphs said.

Edwards made it through the screening process and was assigned her first attorney, Mary Peck Kashman, whom Edwards described as “awesome.” Edwards said Kashman always showed a personal interest and attentiveness with her case.

“She really knew my case backwards and front,” she said.

Edwards’s case has lasted several years, unlike a lot of the cases that LAS deals with. There was a lot of “contention,” as Edwards put it, between her and Ray. In addition to refusing to go to mediation, she said Ray tried at one point to get her to pay child support, and was emotionally manipulating their 3-year-old daughter, Maya. A lot of legal work was done to help fix the situation — work that took about two years and two different lawyers.

Edwards didn’t always have court victories with LAS. In fact, she described her first court appearance as “devastating.” The commissioner hearing the case had not read Edwards’s case file and simply scolded her and Ray for fighting.

Edwards said she left in tears. “I was trying to hold it together but I just broke down sobbing in the middle of the courtroom,” she said. But soon afterward came the first sign of hope. The commissioner read her file and awarded Edwards temporary partial custody of Maya.

But that was not the end of the legal headache for Edwards.

“I would have to call the police a lot on Ray,” she said. “Especially when I was going to pick up Maya. He would just do things like either not be home when he knew I was supposed to come, or he would just flat out refuse to hand her over.”

She also had trouble with Ray “emotionally manipulating” Maya. “I didn’t know what to do for her, I didn’t know how to help. So I took her to counseling which turned out to be a success,” Edwards said.

Then came another breakthrough. Ray was assigned another attorney whom Edwards described as a “reasonable man.” Edwards believes the new attorney helped Ray see that he needed to hold up his end of the bargain.

Edwards was also assigned another attorney after Kashman had to fly home to be with her sick mother. At first Edwards was frustrated when her new attorney didn’t seem to know her case, but eventually he “got caught up” and finished out the rest of the legal work. They finally got Ray into mediation, he is paying child support, and Edwards was awarded full custody of Maya.

One of the paralegals working on the case was Michelle Beddoes, who said they had to approach Ray with six different parenting plans before Ray and Edwards finally agreed.

“It always takes a while to reach an agreement when the opposing party is really difficult to deal with,” Beddoes said.

Overall, Edwards is very happy with the way her case turned out and the services she received from LAS.

“[LAS] completely saved my sanity,” she said. “They gave me new hope, another chance, and I hate to think where I would still be without them.”

Edwards has been out of the courtroom for a couple years and her daughter Maya is doing well after counseling. Edwards said she is now able to move on with her life, thanks to the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.