Op-Ed: As economic decline strains Utah families, legal needs will intensify

Written by: Peter Reichard

To a large extent, the legal needs facing lower-income Utah households serves as a barometer of the strains facing those households overall. So getting a handle on what those needs are — and the extent to which they are being met — becomes critical to philanthropic and governmental decision-making. This is true all the more in a time of crisis.

A new report from Utah Foundation goes in-depth on this question. The Justice Gap: Addressing the Unmet Legal Needs of Lower-Income Utahns, as its name suggests, finds a major gap in representation in civil legal cases in Utah. And there are plenty of needs out there. A Utah Foundation survey found that most lower-income households have at least one civil legal needs issue type — and nearly a quarter have three or more legal issues. The survey also revealed that two-thirds of Utah’s lower-income survey respondents could not afford a lawyer if they needed one.

Often, this means an unlevel playing field. We found that, among 62,000 debt collection cases, nearly 100% of plaintiffs have lawyers, compared with only 2% of defendants. Among 14,000 eviction cases, 90% of petitioners have lawyers, compared with only 5% of respondents.

There are also disparities in terms of geographic access to legal representation. Compared to urban counties, rural counties tend to have a low availability of local legal representation to serve their populations.

Financial legal needs topped the list of legal-need types, affecting 26% of households. These include issues such as problems with debt collection agencies and scams. Employment issues ranked second (21%), with problems including being forced to work overtime or “bad shifts” and a failure of employers to pay wages, overtime or benefits (or pay employees on time). Health law (19%) and public benefits (16%) issues rounded out the very top issues.

But there may be a mismatch between the most common areas of need and the services provided. For instance, a large proportion of legal services provided for lower-income Utahns are for immigration issues, though immigration issues are among the least reported in Utah Foundation’s survey.

That said, not all legal needs bring the same level of strain to a household. For instance, while domestic violence is among the least reported legal issues in Utah Foundation’s survey, it has the highest rating for severity in the households affected by it.

Rental housing legal issues have the second-highest level of severity for affected households, with a significant gap in services to meet housing-related legal needs. We can expect that problem to grow as the financial strain brought on by the economic lockdown puts families at greater risk of eviction and foreclosure.

That’s just one of several areas for policymakers and the legal community to watch closely as the coronavirus fallout reveals itself. Financial issues will intensify in the face of joblessness and reduced household incomes. Employment issues will intensify, as employers struggle to make payroll and are forced to cut back on workforce and benefits. Domestic violence issues are expected to flare up as financial pain and isolation bring household tensions to a boiling point. And an era of distress could lead to family breakdown and divorce, leading to a need for family law services.

The results are in, and it’s time for the legal community, policymakers and philanthropists to reassess their commitments to legal services in Utah. It’s also time to examine the underlying causes of the justice gap, from the factors driving up the cost of legal representation to the factors leading households into legal need in the first place.


Originally published in the Deseret News on May 15, 2020.

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