It was nearly two decades ago, but Stewart Ralphs still vividly recalls the details of one case that crystallized for him the importance of ensuring everyone has access to legal help.
A woman had come to Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake for help because of an abusive boyfriend. She had horrible scars marring her face.
"Her boyfriend had taken keys and used them like brass knuckles so they made the maximum amount of damage to her face," said Ralphs, who was then director of the nonprofit's domestic violence program.
The emotional damage the woman had experienced was even worse, he said. While other professionals would help the woman overcome that harm, Legal Aid worked to give the woman the protection of the law.
"What I know is because [someone] came through our doors they've been able to get what the law provides for them," he said. "There is a sense of personal satisfaction when you can do that."
Over the past 90 years, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake has assisted tens of thousands of low-income individuals with family law cases,and domestic violence victims with protective orders and other legal proceedings.
Its champions have included J. Allan Crockett, Utah's longest serving Supreme Court justice, and attorney William "Bill" Shelton, who never let blindness hinder him during his nearly 50 years at the organization. Ralphs, who had less than three years experience at the time, took over as executive director in 1994 right after the nonprofit's office at 200 E. 225 South burned down.
Two men one a former client broke in, took several portable stereos, a VCR and cash and then set the building on fire to cover up their crime. It turned out to be a blessing. The community rallied around the organization and by the time it moved back into the space it had updated computers and a new phone system, Ralphs said.
Since 2002, Legal Aid has shared space with Utah Legal Services and the Disability Law Center at the Community Legal Center, 205 N. 400 West. It has a staff of about 28, including 11 staff members dedicated to domestic violence cases working out of the Matheson Courthouse, two at the West Jordan Courthouse and another two at the Family Justice Center in the new YWCA complex. It also runs family law clinics at both courthouses, providing help to individuals an estimated 8,000-plus this year who can't afford an attorney or want to represent themselves in legal proceedings.
It operates on a shoestring budget that is just over $1 million, funds that come primarily from grants and donations, Ralphs said. On average, it expends $230 per case.
"Legal Aid Society as an organization does a really good job of representing its clients with excellence, but also being very pragmatic about what the limitations of the law are," he said. "Because of that, we have a pretty good reputation with the legal community and the courts."
Its cases are not glamorous, Ralphs said. They are emotionally draining and most involve tragic situations, from incapacitated elderly people who are being taken advantage of by caregivers or family members to women who are victims of domestic violence and don't have the financial resources or know how to get help.
Years ago, Valerie Jeffs was one of those women. She was a stay-home mom with a controlling husband who was physically and emotionally abusing her and their children. Legal Aid helped her file for a protective order and then for a divorce. Jeffs was so impressed by the paralegal who assisted her that she went on to become a paralegal herself. After an internship at the nonprofit, Jeffs went to work for the organization that had made such a difference in her own life.
"Legal Aid is a necessary resource for people, especially women who've never worked outside the home and don't have resources of their own and otherwise wouldn't be able to get help," said Jeffs, who now works as a paralegal at a local law firm.
During its annual gala on Friday, the society will honor "success" story: Tonya Cardwell, who also turned to Legal Aid for help and now works as a paralegal.
Legal Aid still offers free legal help to domestic violence victims who need a protective order or stalking injunction. It uses a sliding fee scale based on income for clients who need help with family law cases.
Its attorneys and paralegals are "grossly underpaid" compared to their colleagues in the government and private sectors, Ralphs said.
"Nobody is here for the money," Ralphs said. "Unless they get joy out of providing justice, this isn't going to be the place for them to spend their careers."
What • The Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake will hold its annual gala to raise money for its Domestic Violence Victim Assistance, Bridge the Gap and Adult Guardianship and Family Law Clinic programs. There will be a dinner, open bar, live and silent auctions, social hour and special guests The Johnson Creek Band.
When • Friday, Sept. 14, 6 p.m.
Where • Little America Hotel, 500 S. Main St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $125.00. Call 801-924-3177 or RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.