ACCESS TO JUSTICE
BY RIC N. MORGAN AND SABRAJANKO
The trend lines are unmistakable: self-represented litigants are a permanent and growing portion of the courts' user base. The roles of judges and court clerks concerning self-represented parties have undergone a sea change over the past 15 years.1 Since at least the 1990s, courts in the United States have risen to the challenge posed by the increasing number of litigants who are representing themselves in court.2
Colorado has felt the same pressures as self-represented litigants continue to appear in court in large numbers. Each year since 2013, at least a half million Coloradans have gone to court without a lawyer.3 In cases involving self-represented litigants, judges spend more time explaining basic legal and court processes,4and the demands on court resources increase at every level. Although the great majority of cases involving self-represented litigants are factually and legally uncomplicated, many self-represented litigants need help navigating through an unfamiliar and procedurally complex system.5
This article provides a survey of free legal clinic programs that can help self-represented litigants prepare for court, especially as the pandemic creates broader public legal needs. Free legal clinics are no substitute for in-person representation by an attorney, but these clinics meet some needs of self-represented parties in navigating the court process, especially where the issues and procedures are not complex.6
The State of Affairs
The need for critical legal assistance has only intensified during the pandemic as pressures from financial, legal, and medical difficulties mount. For an estimated 108 million Americans, the lapse of eviction protections is a looming threat.7 A recent poll by Stout Risius Ross estimates that 175,000 eviction cases could be filed in Colorado between August and November.8 At the same time, rental industry experts caution that the availability of COVID-19 grant money and market forces operating in the rental industry will blunt the effects of virus-related evictions in Colorado.9 Either way, the sunset of eviction protections is viewed with great concern by the 259,000 Coloradans estimated to be at risk for eviction.10
Whatever lies ahead, Colorado courts will continue to implement a phased expansion of operations aimed at clearing the huge backlog and cope with a wide variety of new cases.11 Large numbers of self-represented parties will be part of that landscape, appearing in cases involving a broad range of issues, including evictions, family law, employment matters, contract disputes and cancellations, domestic violence, bankruptcies, and foreclosures. The vast majority—living both below and above the poverty line—will have pressing legal needs and cannot afford a lawyer.12
Given the pandemic and the gradual implementation of workarounds to keep everyone safe, the clinics described here have undergone many changes. For example, clinics that were conducted last year in person at local libraries transitioned to telephone consultations when the libraries closed their doors. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of many volunteer attorneys made for a smooth transition to all-remote support, and most statewide clinics continue to operate as scheduled. The return to a new normal over the next few months will incorporate many new clinic procedures to keep everyone safe, including a greater reliance on videoconferencing and telephone conferences.
Colorado has two statewide programs that provide free legal clinics for Colorado's rural communities: Colorado Legal Services and the Virtual Pro Se Clinic program. In addition, local bar associations, pro bono coordinators, local access to justice committees, and the courts' Self-Represented Litigant Coordinators add free clinic capacity for local communities. All combined, the statewide and local programs deliver 201 monthly free legal clinics to urban and rural communities each month across Colorado.13
Colorado Legal Services
Colorado Legal Services (CLS) is a private nonprofit that provides high-quality civil legal services for as many low-income persons and members of vulnerable populations throughout Colorado as possible.14CLS plays a critical role in helping the most vulnerable Coloradans maintain the basic necessities of life, including food, shelter, utilities, and medical care. It also works to ensure freedom from domestic violence and abuse, and to protect the individual rights of the elderly and those who are physically and mentally disabled.
The pervasive and compelling need for free civil legal services for Colorado's low-income individuals and families continues to grow as Colorado's population expands. CLS is the only agency in the state that provides free civil legal services to clients in every Colorado county.15 Serving a statewide low-income population of over 820,000 with a staff of just over 100 personnel, including 58 attorneys, the geographical and technological challenges are intensified by the lack of adequate funding.16 The program's largest office is in Denver, with other offices in Alamosa, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Craig, Dillon, Durango, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Greeley, La Junta, Pueblo, and Salida. CLS partners with independent pro bono programs providing additional services in Alamosa, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Greeley, and Salida.
CLS Rural Clinic Models
CLS has long identified a need for additional outreach for low-income communities in rural Colorado,17where approximately 16% of its income-eligible clients are located. That vision became a reality in 2014 when CLS was awarded $173,808 as a "Pro Bono Innovation Fund" (PBIF) grant from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).18 These funds are made available to LSC grantees to encourage innovative approaches to pro bono client services, and to provide the additional resources and time to develop new concepts and experiment with new solutions.
Through a unique partnership with the Colorado Bar Association, two Denver law firms, and metro-area volunteer attorneys, CLS used its initial PBIF grant to develop five clinic models to explore technological options and employ urban pro bono attorneys to expand service to remote rural communities. In 2017, following the successful completion of the 2014 initial PBIF grant, LSC awarded CLS $132,416 in a PBIF Sustainability Grant19 to continue, expand, and replicate the five CLS rural clinic models; fully integrate the clinics into CLS core services; and efficiently deliver legal services through technology enhancements.
The five pro bono clinic models are effective in almost any rural county, regardless of the extent of local attorney and other resources, providing for a more equitable distribution of CLS services across the state.20 Three of the original clinic models use Zoom videoconferencing to connect metropolitan pro bono attorneys with rural low-income clients. One clinic model uses a toll-free telephone line, and one uses only phone and email interaction. These technologies enabled CLS to offer expanded services to rural communities while preserving scarce rural community pro bono and CLS staff resources for cases that require more extensive attention and assistance. These clinics are no substitute for in-person representation by an attorney, but they meet some of the need and complement the services being offered by the very limited number of CLS staff attorneys and pro bono attorneys in rural counties.
These five CLS rural clinic models now serve 42 rural counties:
Call4All Clinic. This monthly clinic offers free services to qualifying low-income clients in eight judicial districts covering 23 counties.21 The clinic uses a toll-free telephone line to enable isolated low-income CLS clients to consult with pro bono attorneys from Brown-stein Hyatt Farber Schreck. This Denver law firm committed space and technological and pro bono resources to the clinic, which offers assistance with family law, landlord/tenant law, protection order questions, consumer debt collections, probate, and small claims court matters. Since the Call4All Clinic began in 2016, both paralegal students and law students have volunteered to screen callers for eligibility. This initial step ensures that the law firm volunteer attorneys have a basic understanding of the legal issue before they begin the advice call. Due to COVID-19, this clinic has expanded to serve the 5th and the 12th judicial districts because local clinics in those areas are temporarily halted due to library closures. Clients can call (844) 404-7400 the third Wednesday of the month from 5 to 8 p.m.
Record Sealing and Expungement Clinic. This clinic serves 10 judicial districts covering 35 counties.22 A CLS paralegal reviews applications, and a CLS attorney provides advice and brief services. The attorney reviews and analyzes whether each case can be sealed or expunged, and prepares petitions for eligible clients. The clinic also collaborates with Self-Represented Litigant Coordinators, who can assist CLS clients with case filing and procedural requirements thereafter. The 2019 changes to Colorado laws eased restrictions on record sealing and expungement and enabled CLS staff to expand...