What Is Access to Justice?
Molly Barnewitz, J.
Navigating the legal system without professional advice can be intimidating. Although laws, regulations, and processes establish a set of rules, it often takes a lawyer or paralegal to manage the complexities. Unfortunately, access to professional help is not always a possibility, and many people are forced to handle important matters involving their livelihoods, families, and homes all on their own. Barriers including location, language, financial circumstances, and educational background can make the justice system nearly impossible to access. If the justice system is inaccessible, just enforcement of the law is impossible. As a result, attorneys arguably have an ethical duty to use their training for purposes of helping protect the rights of those less fortunate by alleviating the disparities in access to the justice system. Luckily, many attorneys lend their services to the public every day by participating in pro bono efforts nationwide. However, the justice system is still largely inaccessible to many people.
According to the Justice Index, established by the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School, there are only 40.31 attorneys per 10,000 people in the state of Utah and only 0.64 attorneys per 10,000 people who live in poverty. This lack of access to representation has severe consequences. For example, a 2017 survey of Utah court data showed that in 52% of family law cases no party had an attorney. In debt collection cases that same year, 98% of cases had self-represented respondents, while the collection agency was represented by an attorney in all cases. Similar statistics were true in eviction cases, with 95% of cases having unrepresented respondents. Given the numbers, traditional pro bono representation is not always feasible; however, there are large gaps in access to even basic court-related assistance. That is why the Utah State Bar’s Access to Justice programming, under the direction of the Pro Bono Commission and the Access to Justice Coordinating Committee, is working with volunteer attorneys and other service providers to close the gap in access.
The Pro Bono Commission and Access to Justice Coordinating Committee
Established in 2012, the Pro Bono Commission supports pro bono efforts statewide with the help of each of Utah’s eight District Pro Bono Committees. Members work to organize and support independent projects, data collection, and attorney...