Breaking Down Barriers to the Legal System, 1220 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 11 Pg. 10

PositionVol. 49, 11 [Page 10]

49 Colo.Law. 10

Breaking Down Barriers to the Legal System

Vol. 49, No. 11 [Page 10]

Colorado Lawyer

December, 2020



Most of Colorado's 22 judicial districts have a local Access to Justice Committee (ATJ Committee). The ATJ Committees provide targeted legal assistance to residents—primarily individuals who can't afford a lawyer. But our state didn't always have ATJ Committees.

The idea to form ATJ Committees and a statewide Access to Justice Commission (the Commission) dates back to the late 1990s. "The Commission idea began with a request made by the Legal Services Corporation in 1995 to the directors of its funded programs throughout the United States to form groups that would plan efforts to increase the scope and improve the efficiency of legal services to persons who cannot otherwise afford them."1 In response to this request, in 2001, the newly formed Colorado Statewide Legal Services Planning Group (the Group) began "implementing the expressed preference of the federal Legal Services Corporation that formal entities be created to represent the 'state justice community' in each state."[2]

With the support of the Group, the Colorado Bar Association, and the Colorado Supreme Court, the Commission—one of the first in the country—began its work in 2003. Its goals include addressing the justice gap that hampers equal access to justice throughout Colorado. The Commission's mission is to "develop, coordinate and implement policy initiatives to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for persons who encounter barriers in gaining access to Colorado's civil justice system."3

This article discusses the history, accomplishments, and ongoing initiatives of the ATJ Committees, and the expansion of Colorado's access to justice efforts over the past two decades.

History of the ATJ Committees

Colorado was the first state to create ATJ Committees. The idea for establishing ATJ Committees stemmed from a recommendation from the Legal Services/Pro Bono Committee of the state's Judicial Advisory Council in 1998. The initial concept of creating a pro bono committee in each judicial district quickly grew to include strategies for addressing all access to justice issues. The Council recognized that greater efforts than merely expanding pro bono representation were necessary to address the barriers to Colorado's justice system. The pro bono committees became the ATJ Committees, comprised of local stakeholders dedicated to advancing access to justice. The state's first ATJ Committees formed in 2003 and 2004. By 2006, 12 judicial districts had established ATJ Committees and, by 2013, there were 15 ATJ Committees across the state.

Then-Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Taubman, now an emeritus member of the Commission, and then-Chief Justice Nancy Rice played a critical role in the further expansion of the ATJ Committees. When she became chief justice in 2013, Chief Justice Rice expressed interest in learning more about the work of the Commission and the ATJ Committees. Judge Taubman spoke with Chief Justice Rice about the successes of t he ATJ Committees then in existence. She was surprised to learn that seven judicial districts in the state still lacked ATJ Committees. Judge Taubman discussed with die Chief Justice the Commission's efforts to demonstrate throughout die state die benefits of having an ATJ Committee and to encourage die remaining judicial districts to form ATJ Committees. Chief Justice Rice urged die chief judges in those districts without ATJ Committees to form one. Her efforts led to die formation of ATJ Committees in six additional judicial districts.

Achieving access to justice throughout die state requires a wide variety of services and tools tailored to each specific community. These tools include "expanded self-help services to litigants, new or modified court rules and processes that facilitate access, discrete task representation by counsel, increased pro bono assistance, effective use of technology, increased availability of legal aid services, enhanced language access services, and triage models to match specific needs to die appropriate level of services."[4]

The Work of the ATJ Committees

The ATJ Committees evaluate the access to justice needs in their communities and develop programs and initiatives to fulfill those needs. The services and tools offered through die ATJ Committees include:

■ ensuring that self-represented litigant coordinators (known as "Sherlocks") staff Self Help Centers, which provide services to those in need;

■ offering monthly classes and clinics on topics such as evictions, family law matters, and sealing records;

■ holding monthly free clinics where self-represented litigants...

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