Low-income resources available for legal issues
March 30, 2016
Steamboat Springs — Moffat County Judge Sandra Gardner finds the numbers staggering.
In the 14th Judicial District, which encompasses Routt, Moffat and Grand Counties, 75 percent of the people involved in domestic relation cases represented themselves in district court during fiscal year 2014. In county court, 98 percent of people handled their civil cases without attorney representation. Throughout all Colorado county courts, 180,000 people represented themselves.
"When you start looking at these numbers, those numbers are big," Gardner said.
Gardner serves as the chairwoman for the Access to Justice committee, formed in April for the 14th Judicial District. The goal of the group is to inform and offer resources to people with low incomes who find themselves facing a civil case. Those cases include landlord/tenant disputes, the sealing of records, divorces and child custody, employment law, protection orders, small claims and estate planning.
Most often, low-income people charged with a criminal offense are provided free legal representation from the public defender's office. That is not the case with civil cases, and when people walk into a courtroom without knowledge of the law, it creates problems for both judges and others involved in the case.
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"They don't know the rules of the law," Gardner said. "They don't know the rules of procedure — of evidence."
This can lead to emotionally charged hearings.
"That can be very frustrating if people feel they aren't getting an opportunity to present their case," Gardner said.
Judges are caught in the middle trying to resolve the cases, and it is never as simple as Judge Judy makes it seem on her TV show.
"Small claims is like peeling an onion," Gardner said. "You have to get to the center, but as you peel more layers, your eyes tear more and more and more."
It is not necessarily the goal of the Access to Justice committee to lower the number of people who choose to represent themselves; instead, it is to give people the tools to better represent themselves.
Steamboat Springs attorney and Northwest Colorado Bar Association President Matt Tjosvold is also serving on the volunteer committee, which meets once per month.
In June, the committee plans to host free ask-an-attorney clinics in all three counties. People will be able to meet with attorneys for 15 minutes, and Spanish interpreters will be available. Clinics dates have not yet been set and will be published at a later date.
The committee also wants to educate low-income people about unbundled legal services. Unbundled legal services are essentially a la carte services. Instead of being totally represented by an attorney, clients can get help with specific things. This helps keep the cost down, Tjosvold said.
"What we want to do is make folks aware of free or low-cost legal services," Tjosvold said.
In addition, the committee plans to distribute information flyers through some of the larger employers in the communities.
Those with additional questions about the committee's work can email Kristina Glawe at firstname.lastname@example.org..
There is also a self-help section at the Colorado Judicial Branch website at courts.state.co.us. On their site people can find forms and instructions for navigating the civil courts.