Access to Justice Rally in the Supreme Court
by Christine McManus VonGunden
It’s not every year that these champions take a Friday night to tout equal justice for all. In fact, 2007 was the last time such forces rallied in hearings like this across the state, in conjunction with key judicial leaders in each of Colorado’s Congressional Districts.
"The hearings in 2007 resulted in important legislation affecting funding for the Colorado Family Violence Justice Fund, as well as other access-to-justice issues," said Noah Patterson, co-chair of the DBA Access to Justice Committee. "We expect this hearing will have a profound effect on future funding and court policy."
Patterson and co-chair Alison Daniels rallied testimony from the trenches in Denver. As legislators and officials sat in the justices’ seats behind the long, prestigious bench, they heard from officials who work with the indigent every day.
Jon Asher of Colorado Legal Services, a longtime champion of the poor, said that for every $1 spent, his office saves the state $6.35 in costs related to housing, employment and other areas. CLS served 11,000 people last year, from families making roughly $30,000 per year. CLS’s website alone saw 18,000 downloads of legal materials.
For every client served by the volunteer-based Metro Volunteer Lawyers nonprofit, at least one other qualified client is turned away, said the executive director Dianne Van Voorhees. More than 450 attorneys volunteered to take on 1,450 cases last year, ranging from family law and immigration to consumer and housing cases. An efficient staff of four coordinates the MVL cases.
"We don’t have those fundraising commercials with cute, poor little puppies. Our clients don’t have that kind of appeal," said Van Voorhees. "If you are in the general public, you don’t understand how important fair access to justice is."
Perhaps the most compelling testimony came from Rosemary, a white-haired woman who approached the bench with a smile — a former client of CLS. She had finished putting her boys through college when her husband fell ill and her house went into foreclosure. Troubles mounted and she nearly found herself homeless after a lifetime of hard work.
"If someone told me I would go through this, I never would have believed it. I was scared, and humiliated. I couldn’t afford a $500 retainer for an attorney. When I went to CLS, they spoke to me like I was a real person. Every day, I bless the people at CLS," she said.
Legislators also heard from the Hon. John Marcucci and the Hon. Robert Hyatt, Chief Judge of the 2nd Judicial District, and Sarah Zoellner, a coordinator of self-represented litigants for Denver courts. Out of 4,300 family law cases last year, more than two-thirds were unrepresented, Hyatt said.
More and more people are trying to navigate the courts alone, unfamiliar with court procedure and laws. The reasons for coming to court without representation are illusive, but lack of affordable attorneys tops the list. Reality shows depicting TV courtrooms may have given people a false sense of legal literacy.
"These are ordinary people, where the fate of their kids, their finances, and physical disorders hang in the balance," Hyatt said. "If your family were at stake, you’d want assistance."
The courts need to provide better resources for self-represented litigants. Even just brief counsel from an attorney would help pro se individuals.
After listening for more than two hours, State Rep. Daniel Kagan of House District 3 (south Denver) said he was impressed.
"To hear from the people giving their time, talent and energy to ensure Coloradans get representation was inspiring," Kagan said. "If I’ve got anything to do with it, (funding) will continue, and increase. But the reality is that it’s always difficult. This is a terribly important issue."
What caught the legislators’ attention in particular was the growing need of flood victims, who lost so much during the state’s worst flooding in memory. Flood victims are trying to figure out issues such as whether rent is due on uninhabitable housing, for example, and how to wade through FEMA applications and insurance bureaucracy.
As the hearing came to a close at the Ralph Carr Judicial Center, Colorado Access to Justice Commission Chair Fred Baumann explained the financial picture. Temporary emergency funding for services — approved by officials the past couple years — runs out next summer. He appealed for reinstatement of key funding, to address challenges to equal access to Colorado’s civil justice system.
"The more we have people who aren’t heard at a fair hearing, the more our system falters," said Chief Justice Michael Bender, in response to testimony before him. "We have people with high and modest needs not being met. It’s tragic. Judicial needs are the core function of our government in society." D
Freelance writer and editor Christine McManus VonGunden is a former Director of Communications at the Denver Bar Association.