Court worker turnover reached an “unsustainable” rate of 25% in 2021, according to the Utah Chief Justice.
Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant on Tuesday called on state lawmakers to devote more funds to hiring and retaining qualified court workers in the state.
Durrant, who was nominated to the Utah Supreme Court by former Republican Utah Governor Mike Leavitt in 2000, made his budget requests to the Legislature during the annual State of the bench on the first day of the 2022 General Session.
Ten years ago, Durrant said the three-year paralegal turnover rate was about 8.65%. At the end of 2021, the turnover rate soared to an “unsustainable” level of 25%. On average, Utah court clerks earn less than 20 percent of market value, Durrant noted in his speech, making it harder to retain qualified court assistants. That’s why Durrant is asking for $3.9 million in permanent funding to recruit and retain qualified court workers, who make up 40 percent of all court employees.
“Continuing to pay our legal assistants at rates so significantly below market value endangers critical functions of the judiciary,” Durrant said in a pre-recorded message to lawmakers. “While we are doing everything possible to solve this problem internally, we need legislative assistance and budgetary prioritization.”
Last year, the Utah legislature awarded the judiciary a one-time sum of $802,000 to support its IT department. Now, Durrant is asking lawmakers to make an ongoing contribution.
Amid the pandemic, Durrant said tens of thousands of people have taken advantage of virtual court proceedings.
“In many ways, the virtual court has provided greater access to justice than ever before, bringing the court to the people, rather than forcing people to go to a courthouse,” he said. . “Lawyers, parties and witnesses avoided travel time and expense by appearing remotely. People in rural areas were able to seek help from a much wider range of attorneys from all parts of the state without having to pay the often prohibitive expenses associated with travel.
However, the move to virtual has also resulted in higher costs, delays in legal proceedings and connectivity issues, he said.
Durrant also requested unspecified funds to hire a public outreach coordinator, a statewide treatment court coordinator, a coordinator to assist with guardianship cases and a second juvenile court judge. “very necessary” in the sixth judicial district to serve the residents of Sanpete, Sevier, Piute. , Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties.
Durrant also pointed out different ways the legal council is making legal aid more accessible and affordable for low-income Utahns.
“For most people, legal assistance is out of reach,” Durrant said. “Lawyers as a group are civic-minded people. They volunteer their time at admirable levels. But we cannot come out of the access to justice crisis voluntarily.
These efforts include MyCase, an online portal that allows Utahns to access their court cases; the online dispute resolution program, dubbed the “pajama court,” the Office of Legal Services Innovation; and the new Office of Equity and Accountability, which seeks to tackle the problem of bias in the justice system.
After Durrant’s remarks, Senate Speaker Stuart Adams thanked the chief justice and said the virtual meeting during the pandemic had run into difficulties.
“(I appreciate) your efforts to try to get more help, legal help to people who need it,” he said. “Your budget requests we will give full consideration to and consider and appreciate the great things you and the judges, and other judges and their staff, are doing across the state.”