Vol. 29, No. 1
Flying Squads: A New Lend-A-Lawyer Program
by Randall Lococo
"Flying Squads" is a new program that will change the way pro se parties handle a domestic case. Colorado courts are trying new and different ways to help unrepresented parties wade through a sometimes frustrating and confusing process. Lend-A-Lawyer, Inc.1 has devised a program that compliments and supports the variety of methods the courts and the State Judicial Department are using to assist pro se domestic litigants.
The Flying Squad concept originated and evolved from the idea and efforts of several members of the Board of Directors of Lend-A-Lawyer ("LAL"). The idea started with an observation that rural litigants and courts might benefit from some concepts used by metropolitan districts and Metro Volunteer Lawyers (now "MVL" and formerly "TNB"). Those concepts include allowing attorneys to enter an appearance and withdraw in one day on behalf of pro se litigants, allowing volunteers to impart legal information to pro se parties, and allowing volunteers to help parties understand and prepare required court forms and documents. After presenting the idea to several rural and Front Range judges, LAL determined that there is not much utility in importing litigators in pro se cases. A greater need is for case management, educating pro se litigants, and assisting pro se litigants, who need more understanding of the legal procedures and forms to be used (e.g., required disclosures, financial affidavits, child support worksheets, separation agreements, motions, and decrees). The courts also would benefit from having professionals available to mediate or facilitate disputes. While these ideas were evolving, the Legal Services Corporation ("LSC") was encountering ongoing funding challenges in Congress.2
Two basic needs arise from this situation: (1) to provide some form of legal assistance or dispute resolution to domestic pro se litigants in rural areas, and (2) to assist rural courts in helping pro se litigants through the dissolution process. The Flying Squads program, as refined, appeared to meet those needs.
Members of the LAL Board met with the Colorado Bar Association’s ("CBA") Family Law Section and the Multi-disciplinary Committee on Child Custody and found enthusiastic support and offers of volunteers for the concept. Members of the CBA’s ADR Committee have also indicated support for this project. In late 1998, the LAL Board of Directors decided to test the project to see what, if anything, could be devised to address these needs and develop the project. Fort Morgan, in the Thirteenth Judicial District, was selected as a test forum, in part because Judge Douglas Vannoy and Judge Joseph Weatherby were gracious enough to allow the project to be tested in their courtrooms. The Flying Squad project conducted two test events in early 1999 and a follow-up in August 1999. This article contains observations and suggestions for further action following those three test events.
The Test Events: Description Of Services Provided
The test events were held on January 14, February 11, and August 12, 1999. Volunteers consisted of attorneys (practicing and non-practicing) and non-attorneys with experience, knowledge, and background in domestic law issues, children’s issues, and mediation. The case files were assessed, either by the court, court staff, or the volunteer, to determine the status of the case. Judge Vannoy called his entire docket at once to further assess the status of each case. He asked the parties to meet with the volunteers for cases he identified as likely to benefit from mediation or assistance with paperwork.
Judge Weatherby called his cases in order and allowed the volunteers to peruse each file to assess the case. Again, the appropriate case was one where mediation might be a benefit or where paperwork was absent from the file. In cases the volunteers deemed fitting, the volunteers contacted the parties in the court halls and invited them to discuss the status of their case. During the January and February tests, Judge Vannoy advised the parties that the volunteers were lawyers or mediators, were not representing them, would not be giving them any legal advice, but were available to help them with "legal information" and would assist them in reaching resolutions on some or all of the issues or in preparing to present their cases before the court. Later, Judge Vannoy devised an "advisement" form that explained these points.
The volunteers met with the parties in the hallways and conference rooms, assessed the status of the case, and attempted to mediate or facilitate resolution or furtherance of the procedural posture of the case. In many cases, the parties’ paperwork was not sufficient to allow them to proceed. In those cases, the volunteers assisted the parties in completing their paperwork on the spot. The volunteers made use of the judicially approved forms for pro se parties. In addition, a laptop computer on which the child support guidelines were loaded and a printer were used. In cases needing mediation, facilitation, or education, the volunteers engaged the parties in those discussions.
In most cases, the volunteers were able to bring the parties to complete resolution. In other cases, the volunteers were able to move the case forward significantly. Following the meetings, the volunteers gave introductions on the record to the court regarding the case status. The judge then made whatever inquiries he deemed appropriate, and either issued orders or reset the case for hearing.
At both the January 14 test and the August 12 event, the volunteers serviced approximately six couples each time. At the February 11 test, the volunteers worked with approximately ten couples.
Volunteer Observations and Procedures
The work done by the volunteers was, under the circumstances, extremely brief and very focused. One volunteer characterized it as "quick and dirty." Generally, the volunteers would take a brief moment to peruse the file and determine the current procedural posture of the case. They spent some time informing the parties of the basic nature of the legal issues involved. The parties then were given some basic legal information on allocation of parental responsibilities and parenting time, equitable property division, how courts generally view equitable division, what maintenance is, gross income and the child support guidelines, the court’s role in implementing and enforcing guidelines, and the effect of the decree. The volunteers tended to use more education, mediation, and facilitation tools than they did legal tools. The rule was that any information given to one party had to be shared with both parties. Accordingly, the volunteers met with both parties together.
Reactions from the Bench
Judges Vannoy and Weatherby were extremely pleased with the results of the project. According to the judges, the services provided by the volunteers were valuable to them and their staff. Judge Vannoy indicated he was able to process more cases in a shorter period of time than he would have without the volunteers. Three or four cases at a time (or as many volunteers as were present) were in process while the court was focusing simultaneously on one contested issue or case. Therefore, judicial resources were not being used one case at a time.
Following the first two tests, Judge Vannoy was so pleased that he took the initiative to further the project himself. He made contact with all attorneys in Fort Morgan and invited them to sign up to continue the work started by the Flying Squad volunteers. By July 1999, he had two local volunteers scheduled for each of the remaining six pro se days in 1999. In addition, he created an advisement and informational form for pro se litigants. Further, Judge Vannoy took advantage of the availability of personnel from the Office of Dispute Resolution ("ODR"). In late 1998, ODR received a federal grant to create and provide mediation and parent education programs for rural areas. Judge Vannoy and his staff selected certain cases that appeared appropriate and informally directed them to appear at the courthouse on the morning of pro se docket day. (The pro se docket is heard in the afternoons.) On those mornings, the ODR staff engaged the parties in more formal mediation.
Observations of the Litigants
One shortcoming of these tests is that no formal inquiries were made of the litigants. Informal inquiries suggest that a great majority of the parties involved were satisfied with the services provided. Those litigants questioned indicated that the assistance was very helpful. One couple commented that they did not understand the importance of the financial affidavit. However, once it was explained, they realized its importance and gladly cooperated. Overall, the parties involved did not seem to understand the legal system, the jurisdictional requirements, or the procedural requirements imposed upon them. This particular community included several couples who did not speak English. (Some non-English-speaking couples provided their own informal interpreter, such as a friend or family member.) Parties generally wanted to get their cases resolved. Even what seemed to be the most contentious couple appeared to be pleased that the issues, while not resolved, were at least framed and presented to the court through the volunteer’s oral statement at the beginning of the hearing.
Factors That are Helpful in Making this Concept Succeed
1. A committed and interested bench, along with cooperative court staff. In Fort Morgan, the staff were very helpful and interested in furthering the program. Staff were familiar with the files and, in some cases, had sent blank pro se forms to the parties ahead of time. Staff also allowed the volunteers easy access to the copy machine.
2. Scheduling pro se cases together or on the same day.
3. Calling all cases on the docket at once. This allows the court to determine both time and priority of hearings, allows the court to be proactive in selecting which cases should be helped by a volunteer and which should not, and allows the volunteers to hear the cases and self-select their assignments based on their expertise. It also reduces or eliminates the inactive wait time for volunteers.
3. A computer with the child support program and a printer. If a laptop is not available, then perhaps the court could provide a court computer that has the guidelines available. The test litigants benefitted greatly from the ability to see the worksheets and discuss them in any mediated/facilitated session and to make immediate corrections or amendments.
4. Hard copies of the approved pro se forms. Volunteers generally helped parties complete forms on the spot.
5. Participation and cooperation of the local bar. Judge Vannoy recognized there is no significant reason not to include local attorneys in the pool of volunteers. While this program started out with the idea of involving metro area attorneys, there is no real need for that if the local bar can handle the assignments. Where a local bar is very small, there are numerous volunteers in the metro area who have already expressed a willingness to travel to the needy jurisdiction to participate in such a program.
Challenges to the Flying Squad Concept
1. Interpreters. The necessity of interpreters should be determined, and interpreters should be secured before the court date. Judge Vannoy stresses the importance of qualified language interpreters and the ability of the court to appoint interpreters if the parties are indigent. This requires early court and clerk awareness of the issue and getting the parties to fill out a financial application in advance.
2. Early case identification. Judge Vannoy suggested that the court could be more active in trying to determine which cases need ODR or mediation involvement earlier in the process. This could be through a more specific case management order requiring parties to report or submit the issues earlier (i.e., before the hearing date). Judge Vannoy uses a case management order. The Eighth Judicial District uses various early case management orders and a Temporary Orders Position Statement. However, neither district requires submissions by a date certain prior to hearing pro se cases.
3. Coordination. Clearly, Judge Vannoy "took the ball and ran with it." In the absence of such commitment and enthusiasm, coordinating this effort could become burdensome. The LAL board members who conducted the tests spent many hours on the phone calling each other and communicating with members of the CBA’s Family Law Section. Since Judge Vannoy created the Morgan County project, he has had to communicate with the bar association and has committed his staff to help keep the project going.
4. Malpractice concerns. Volunteers may have concerns about their own malpractice liability or ethical considerations. The advisement Judge Vannoy developed eases these concerns, but does not eliminate them.
1. An "Adopt-A-District" arrangement could be established as a cooperative effort among a local judicial district, its bar association, and volunteers from the metro area. A core team (two or three individuals or a firm) from either the locality or Denver would "adopt a district." They would be responsible for coordinating with the judicial district and providing an appropriate number of volunteers (from the locality, metro area, or both). The judicial district would then supervise the administration of the program in that district. The team would be responsible for coordinating dates with the judge. When the team members get the dates, they would recruit the appropriate mediators and parenting coordinators to join them. The core team (or at least one member) would always attend. The refinement between teams and the court would be ongoing. At the end of a year, the team and the court would report and make recommendations to the judicial district or LAL Board. The team also could be responsible for recruiting and training local lawyers and mediators to participate in the program.
2. The project could be used in conjunction with any degree of case management system.
3. The program could be used in conjunction with an active ODR program in the locality.
4. Flying Squads could do seminars or clinics for pro se parties.
The Flying Squads program presents a significant and timely opportunity for cooperation and partnering between any one or all of the following: the courts; Judicial Department and Supreme Court Administrator’s Office; all legal services providers in the state of Colorado; LAL; ODR; local bar associations; various CBA sections and committees, including the Family Law Section; the Interdisciplinary Committee on Child Custody; and Colorado Counsel of Mediators and Mediation Organizations.
What Lend-A-Lawyer is Willing to Do
LAL is willing to assist in starting a Flying Squad program in any judicial district. Like all of the districts, CRLS and local bar pro bono projects, LAL’s resources are limited. However, the LAL board is committed to this and other creative partnership ideas.
On request, LAL will provide a core team to meet with local judges, court staff, attorneys, and mediators to train them in running their own Flying Squad program. In addition, a core team could coordinate a series of test events. Further, LAL is willing to connect districts with a group who wishes to "adopt a district." To inquire, please contact Barb Martin at the CBA: (303) 824-5311; (800)-332-6736.
The Flying Squads program is a demonstration of the kind of creativity and cooperation necessary to meet the needs of pro se litigants in Colorado. Flying Squads may meet the needs of the courts (or at least reduces the burdens of appropriately processing pro se cases) while also meeting the needs of pro se parties. It may do so with little, if any, effect on judicial district budgets. It may do so by dovetailing with (not duplicating) other existing programs, such as local pro bono projects and Colorado Legal Services. It may do so with local bar involvement, offering local attorneys more and different ways to provide pro bono assistance. And it may do so with all volunteer help. In three limited tests, the courts, the litigants, and the volunteers have all had positive reactions to the program. Creating a more widespread Flying Squads program appears to be an effort worth pursuing.
1. Lend-A-Lawyer, Inc. is a volunteer lawyer program. For more information, see "Lend-A-Laywer, Inc. Annual Report: 1997-1998" 28 The Colorado Lawyer 19 (Feb. 1999).
2. After LAL decided to test this project, Colorado Rural Legal Services ("CRLS"), a state provider funded by LSC, was informed by LSC that its funding would be discontinued.
Randall Lococo, Loveland, is a partner with the firm of Lococo & Peterson LLC and is secretary of Lend-A-Lawyer, Inc. The author appreciates the support of the Lend-A-Lawyer Board of Directors and Barb Martin of the CBA in preparation of this article, as well as the gracious assistance of Celeste Kling in editing this article.
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