Committee rejects constitutional amendment on lawyers

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A File photo of the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate committee has rejected efforts for a constitutional amendment that would change the legal system in Utah, creating a new way for people to get legal advice without necessarily paying high-priced lawyers.

Senate Joint Resolution 3, proposed by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, would have allowed for the creation of “limited law practitioners.” As Urquhart described it to the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Standing Committee, it would allow people to get some legal advice from a qualified and licensed person, who isn’t a full-fledged lawyer.

Urquhart said there are too few lawyers and many people simply can’t afford one, leaving them alone to navigate the court system in complex family court cases and other issues.

“It’s completely checkbook justice,” he said Friday.

Urquhart’s constitutional amendment was met with opposition from a number of attorneys representing the Utah State Bar, who testified that it would be “harmful to the public” and strip the Utah Supreme Court of its constitutional authority.

“The proper solution for greater legal services isn’t to scrap the existing regulatory system and let anyone practice law,” said James Gilson, the president of the Utah State Bar.

Gilson touted the Utah State Bar’s “modest means” program that charges around $50 an hour for low-income people, as well as lawyers who offer services pro bono.

Urquhart said a constitutional amendment is needed because the Utah Supreme Court regulates the practice of law; the legislature regulates the unauthorized practice of law. The Utah State Bar notes that in all 50 states, the supreme court regulates practice of law.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, worried about the potential for scams; Urquhart pressed for regulation of “limited law practitioners.”

The resolution was tabled (held in committee) on a recommendation from Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, effectively killing the legislation this year. Urquhart urged the committee to keep it alive, saying nothing will be done to help poorer people get access to legal advice.

“They will continue to talk about it and talk about it and talk about it,” he said.

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