Lawyers, officials tackle civil-court aid for poor

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At one time, Maria Nunez was a single mom struggling alone to reach a settlement with her ex. Today, she’s a confident personal trainer with fair child support and visitation agreements.

Nunez credits help she got from Metro Volunteer Lawyers.

“I felt that I was in the middle of a big support group,” she says in a video shown to elected officials and others from throughout the 18th Judicial District during the Access to Justice Hearing, held Sept. 24 at the Arapahoe County Justice Center.

“It was nice to see how that helped Maria grow,” attorney Steve Cook says in the video.

When someone facing criminal charges shows up in court without an attorney, the judge can appoint a public defender at taxpayer expense. But there is no such provision in civil cases like divorce, probate and custody battles — situations that people who can’t afford an attorney commonly face.

“I was drowning in debt, as everyone was at the time,” said Patricia Crowe, who saved her house from foreclosure with help an attorney from Colorado Legal Services. “He was very good and very thorough, and he was with me through the whole deal.”

Hobbs presented data indicating there are 85,000 people living in poverty in the 18th Judicial District, a number that is projected to grow by 45 percent before the year 2040. In 2012, more than 82,000 civil cases were filed in the district, mostly in county court.

There are efforts throughout the district to provide help for people facing civil battles, whether they are defending themselves or filing a claim. For example, Douglas and Arapahoe counties both have “pro se clinics” to guide people representing themselves through the court system.

“I compare it to changing an oil filter,” said David Rolfe of the Douglas Pro Se and Mediation Clinic. “If you’ve never changed an oil filter, you’re going to want to get with a buddy and watch it happen first.”

There’s also a new self-help center at the Arapahoe County Justice Center that’s seen more than 1,000 people since it opened at the beginning of the year. Its director, Lindsey Adams, said domestic-relations cases make up 76 percent of those she sees. In divorce cases, for example, people can pick up a packet from the clerk’s office, fill it out and file everything themselves. But they often get stuck.

“There’s a real emotional factor,” she said. “Even though it has instructions, it can be overwhelming.”

Families facing separation due to deportation can often be waylaid by emotion, as well. Mekela Goehring of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network explained that undocumented immigrants have no right to an attorney, no matter their status, nationality or even age.

“It simply is an injustice that 5-year-olds are forced to represent themselves,” she said.

Organizations like MVL and CLS provide volunteer attorneys to the indigent, but they rely on state and local funding. Representatives from those organizations say the money is unpredictable, insufficient and dwindling.

“Despite our best efforts, the American Bar Association estimates only 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor are met,” said Jonathan Asher of CLS. “We, in fact, turn away one person for every person we help.”

Part of the money comes from fees tacked on to filing charges, which some consider controversial.

“There is a real philosophical debate around funding our judicial system and access to it by charging the participants in the system,” said state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. “At some point, you can start to price it out of reach.”

Such assistance doesn’t just help the poor, notes Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory J. Hobbs. He says it speeds up the process for everyone by keeping incorrect paperwork and confusion from leaving cases languishing on the dockets. And the longer they languish, the more they cost in the way of attorney fees, staff time and other resources, he said.

“It puts us as judges in a very difficult position, because we can’t go out of our way to offer them legal advice,” he said. “We can help them along, but we can’t offer them a whole lot of guidance.”

Elbert County Commissioner Robert Rowland wondered about the other extreme, asking if a lot of pro se cases are frivolous and clogging up the courts unnecessarily.

“I have no doubt that some pro se people have meritless cases,” said Asher. “There are some who no reasonable lawyer would take their case. Some get that message, and some go ahead and file pro se.” But, he adds, assistance services can help weed those out.

Dianne Van Voorhees of MVL noted fundraising in this arena can be more challenging than in others, such as animal shelters or starving children.

“People say, ‘I love puppies, and I love kittens.’ But it’s tougher for our people. We get our people at the toughest time in their lives. … We need to figure out how to broaden the knowledge about this critical service we provide to the community.”