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TCL > May 2004 Issue > May is Pro Bono Month: Statewide Visits Reveal Continuing Need

The Colorado Lawyer
May 2004
Vol. 33, No. 5 [Page  41]

© 2004 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved.

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May is Pro Bono Month: Statewide Visits Reveal Continuing Need
by JoAnn Viola Salazar, Jane Gill Kellenberger

Jo Ann Viola Salazar is the Colorado Bar Association Director of Public and Legal Services. Jane Gill Kellenberger is a Colorado Legal Services volunteer and former Pro Bono Director for the Colorado Bar Association.

 

"Do Not Bring Dead Birds Into the Courthouse"

In late spring 2003, the two of us set out to determine the state of pro bono in Colorado and how to provide support for legal services. In our official capacities as the Colorado Bar Association ("CBA") Pro Bono Support Director and Colorado Legal Services ("CLS") volunteer for local office relations, we traveled all around the state. One day, we were standing in front of the Dolores County Courthouse in Dove Creek reading a sign that said: "Do Not Bring Dead Birds Into the Courthouse!" We realized then just how far we were from Denver. Judge Wendy Whicher explained that there is a County Agricultural Extension Office in the basement of the courthouse, and farmers often bring in their dead chickens to find out what had killed them. Unfortunately, the main thing killing birds in the region is a highly contagious virus.

There are two major towns in Dolores County, which lie seventy-two miles apart: Dove Creek and Rico. The judge lives in Dove Creek. The only other attorney lives in Rico. The area is agricultural and has a large percentage of poor and working poor among the population. However, there is no legal services office or other helping agency for legal problems. As a result, Judge Whicher sees a lot of pro se litigants and defendants.

The Players

Many people serve to provide legal services to the poor throughout the state. Most work is done by those who work in the CLS and local bar-sponsored pro bono offices. These offices plan complementary priority lists and keep each other informed of legal services issues in the community. Some CLS offices even do client intake for all cases and refer appropriate cases to the pro bono office. Most offices work well together, and those not quite "in sync" continually strive for closer relationships. Everyone understands that they must work together in these tough economic times.

Aside from the CLS and pro bono offices, each Colorado judicial district has at least one half-time Family Court Facilitator ("FCF") who handles some combination of dependency and neglect, domestic, and juvenile cases.1 Such facilitators assist litigants in filing paperwork, arranging mediation, and doing whatever they can to help prepare a case before it goes before the judge. In 1999, more than 55 percent of all domestic relations cases filed in Colorado were filed pro se.2 Some facilitators say that number is growing. Without an FCF to navigate, many pro se litigants would not make it through the legal system successfully.

Finally, local judges and bar leaders throughout the state are involved in the effort to provide legal services in their districts. Many continue to provide information on how community systems work together and make suggestions about what CLS and the Colorado Bar Association could do to assist the process.

The Method to Our Madness

It was clear that we needed to visit these legal services "players" to get a better handle on how to help legal services providers more effectively. We planned several trips during 2003 to gather information about how the CLS and pro bono offices function in various Colorado communities. We wanted to know how well they worked together, whether the services provided to the community were adequate, and if there were any ways to improve or assist those systems already in place. We wanted to talk to the judges, local bar leaders, and FCFs in each area. Once we created this long list of proposed participants, we tried to determine what issues we needed to address.

As members of the Pro Bono Committee ("Committee") of the Colorado Access to Justice Commission,3 we thought it made sense to add some of the Committee goals to our list of issues. Many local courts and bar associations are just starting to put together the local committees that will work with the statewide Access to Justice Commission to determine community needs in regard to the legal system. Therefore, we decided to address, among other things, the formation of Local Judicial District Access to Justice Committees. In fact, there were a lot of other issues we wanted to address, but we soon realized that those in the communities we visited were best positioned to tell us what they thought was important.

Issues: We All Have Issues

On our travels around the state, many people told us about the problems they have in providing legal services to their communities. For example, there has been a large increase in people filing in forma pauperis motions. Judges react to these motions in varying ways. One judge refuses to grant any of them. Another will not grant them to a litigant who has an attorney, even a pro bono attorney. A third reported that almost all in forma pauperis motions are granted without much ado. A fourth judge said he accepted the motions and reserved the right to rule on them until the financial affidavits were filed. Although some of the working poor can afford to pay the court filing fees, many file in forma pauperis. Where these motions are not even considered, access to the justice system is effectively denied to the poor.

One facilitator told us she sees problems she thinks are attributable to misinformation. In some situations, police and other agencies disseminate the misinformation. For example, some litigants have been told to go to the court and get an "immediate custody order." Also, many people do not read the information the courts or legal services give them.

Another facilitator who works half-time told us that 80 percent of her cases are domestic relations matters and that she spends approximately three hours per case on court-ordered case management status conferences. Case filings keep increasing. There is a high rate of indigency and illiteracy in her community and the travel distances are great. She handwrites the forms for many who cannot fill them out themselves. She also has the authority of the court to recommend mediation, if appropriate. Even though a lot of time and effort are required, she appears to be able to help those so desperately in need of her assistance. However, more help is needed.

Molly Ryan, a legal services attorney in Buena Vista, stated she cannot meet all of the needs of her community, but does meet the demand for the crisis cases. The clients are too scattered geographically for her to conduct clinics, so she provides pro se packets and personally walks clients through the process. She does intake in her office in Buena Vista Monday through Thursday and at the court in Salida on Friday mornings. One problem she noted arises when there is a conflict of interest because CLS already is representing the other party. Such a case is sent to a point-person in the local bar. However, this case is not statistically counted as a pro bono placement by the federal Legal Services Corporation. As a result, CLS cannot cover malpractice insurance for that volunteer.

Garfield Legal Services Interim Director Cheryl Hurst Page noted that federal poverty guidelines are set too low for the ski areas, where living expenses are extremely high. She also told us that there are a large number of undocumented workers in the area who cannot be helped by CLS. Aside from the heavy caseload, there is a serious need for interpreters, not only in Spanish, but also in Russian and some Asian languages.

In Steamboat Springs, the court had been funding pro se clinics twice a month. However, due to budget cuts, it no longer can afford to fund the clinics. As a result, one attorney has volunteered to continue holding clinics—one day in Routt County and one day in Moffat County. Also, once a month, the local bar holds an "Ask-A-Lawyer" night. Sixty percent of the participants do not meet the financial eligibility requirements for CLS assistance. The Steamboat Springs office reports that the area is losing attorneys who are willing to do family law cases, which is the area of greatest need in most pro bono offices. Many lawyers do not have the interest or the time.

When we asked what we could do to assist the poor in the various communities, one judge said that getting rid of common-law marriage would be a big help for the courts and the poor, because such cases are more complicated than regular divorces and the parties often do not seem to understand the legal issues. Another judge countered that common-law marriage was the only saving grace for many poor women in his county when it came to dividing property and allocating child support.

Facing a Crisis in Weld County

In November 2003, we attended an early morning meeting with the Board of the Weld County Legal Services Pro Bono Program. Sandy Carr had been the coordinator of the program for two and a half years when she died suddenly in October 2003. The Board had asked us to come to the meeting to determine what to do about filling her position. Without Sandy’s leadership and with dwindling funding sources, the legal community was discouraged. There had been rumors that the office would have to close down. Fortunately, Liz Meyers, who had preceded Sandy in the job, volunteered to fill in until the end of 2003. The Board readily accepted her offer.

Other possibilities came to light. One suggestion was to hire an intern from AIMS Community College for ten hours a week, for fifteen weeks. Another suggestion was that a volunteer at another office might be able to work with the Board to develop additional local funding sources. The Board planned to contact Jim Rooney, the Director of the Legal Aid Foundation and COLTAF, for ideas about fund-raising. So many ideas flowed at the meeting. Afterward, we received many notes of thanks for being there to support the Weld County Bar and the Board, but all of the ideas and energy came from them. We were happy to witness the way the court, local bar, CLS office, and the community came together to try to keep their pro bono office open under the most distressing of situations.

Little Miracles: Success Stories

• The San Luis Valley Bar Pro Bono Project’s budget is one of the smallest in the state, at about $8,500. Last year, the project had 720 client contacts through phone calls and the monthly advice clinic. Fifty-six cases were assigned to pro bono attorneys—not bad for a bar association with only fifty-two members.

• Sherri Ferree, the pro bono coordinator for the Northwest Legal Services office in Hayden, says that the program there is unique. The local funding is sufficient to provide a small fee for the attorneys who take cases ($40 per hour for out-of-court time and $50 for in-court time).

• Many pro bono coordinators, CLS offices, and court personnel keep lists: (1) resource lists for clients; (2) lists of mentors for new attorneys or attorneys brave enough to learn a new area of practice to do a pro bono case; and (3) lists of volunteers who they say cannot be thanked enough in this lifetime.

• Some communities have "pro se days." One court schedules it monthly with one of their magistrates and the FCF. Another uses the services of the CBA Family Law Section "Flying Squads," who visit rural areas and assist with clearing the backlog of domestic cases. Metro Volunteer Lawyers ("MVL") in Denver has a pro se day in three different courts once a month. Attorney volunteers enter an appearance and withdraw the same day.

• Monthly pro se clinics are conducted by volunteer attorneys and local bar associations all over the state. They work in both the metropolitan and rural areas, although the setup might be different in each location. Even the smallest local bars in the state sponsor monthly advice clinics. Local volunteers work closely with other helping agencies, such as domestic violence programs, as well as for the elderly, homeless, and others who might otherwise be overlooked by society.

Looking to the Future

We talked about the need to bring together all legal services and information providers to help each other meet community needs. One result was a metro-area Pro Se Summit that was held in Denver on December 9, 2003. At the Summit, providers became acquainted and shared information. Some rural areas have indicated an interest in the same type of meeting on a judicial district level.

The need for pro bono legal services is not being met. However, volunteers continue to do what they can. State and local bar associations want legal services offices to do more, but such offices need more staff or more pro bono attorneys. One pro bono office Board member was disappointed when a certain area of the judicial district lowered its local bar association’s pro bono participation rate. He said if he could get even half of that small group to participate, it would bring the attorney participation rate up to 93 percent. What a great wish. We hope it comes true.

NOTES

1. See Gagel, McLean, and Moss, "Family Court Facilitators in Colorado—Part I, 31 The Colorado Lawyer (Dec. 2002) at 61.

2. See Governor’s Task Force on Civil Justice Reform Final Report (July 2000), available at http://www.state.co.us/gov_dir/governor_office. html#govoff, then click on "Special Interest Items."

3. See the new Access to Justice website at http://www.cobar.org/ group/index.cfm?EntityID=dpwaj.

© 2004 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved. Material from The Colorado Lawyer provided via this World Wide Web server is protected by the copyright laws of the United States and may not be reproduced in any way or medium without permission. This material also is subject to the disclaimers at http://www.cobar.org/tcl/disclaimer.cfm?year=2004.


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