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Utah Supreme Court project will give people access to free legal advice on housing issues

May 12, 2023 09:03AM ● By Peri Kinder

As evictions and landlord-tenant disputes increase, the Utah Supreme Court is stepping in with what it hopes will be a solution. 

The Court’s Office of Legal Services Innovation, in partnership with Innovation 4 Justice, announced a groundbreaking project. The Housing Stability Legal Advocate Pilot Program will train and certify nonlawyers working within community-based organizations to help bridge the gap in access to justice for vulnerable populations. 

“We have so many unrepresented tenants in our court system right now,” said Utah Supreme Court Justice Diana Hagen. “When an eviction case is filed, generally the landlord is almost always represented and the tenant is almost always not represented. We have a lot of lawyers offering pro bono services for those tenants. The number of tenants in the system is staggering.”

Social workers trained as HSLAs will be able to provide legal advice to tenants who are facing eviction or other housing instability issues. The program is designed for early intervention to keep tenants out of the court system. Housing advocates will also help people who have been evicted to find housing assistance, get the eviction off their credit report after seven years and explain the financial ramifications of eviction.

Many attorneys provide free legal advice and services for those struggling with housing instability and legal aid clinics are available for those who qualify, but the need still outweighs the availability of these services. 

The HSLA Pilot Program will focus on four key areas: detect housing instability issues as people receive services at community-based organizations, provide legal advice before housing issues move into the court system, offer legal assistance for post-judgment procedures and give legal advice related to other state and federal assistance programs.

“The idea was to test different ways to deliver legal services to people who currently aren’t being served with a lawyer. We know about 86% of families experience at least one legal issue a year and most of those never get any legal advice,” Hagen said. “This is difficult for clients who really need some type of help and really can’t afford to hire a lawyer to get the assistance they need.”

Several years ago, the Court authorized a Paralegal Practitioner License where paralegals could offer limited legal services involving debt, family and housing issues. The HSLA is another attempt to reach people who need legal assistance who might not have the financial means to hire an attorney. 

Under the Utah constitution, the Court has exclusive authority to regulate the practice of law. Its responsibility is to decide who’s admitted to the practice of law, who can become lawyers, and to regulate those people to make sure they’re maintaining high ethical standards.

In 2020, the Court established a regulatory sandbox for nontraditional legal services providers. The sandbox allows individuals and entities to devise innovative practices that relax the rules around who can practice law, without creating undo harm.

“The sandbox is an experiment to see if perhaps our own rules are contributing to the access to justice gap in Utah. To see if the reason people are having a difficult time getting legal resources is because our rules are too restrictive,” Hagen said. “In the sandbox we are gathering a lot of data and we’re using that to determine what works and what doesn’t so we can make better policy decisions in the future.”

The HSLA program is about six months out, but then community-based organizations can begin the certification process to get authorized. Organizations that can certify include homeless and domestic violence shelters, faith-based programs or most programs that serve low-income individuals.

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“We’re really hoping this can help people before they face a legal issue in court,” Hagen said. “The degree in which people are affected by housing problems can’t be overstated.” λ