The Dollars Aren't Stretching: Layoffs, budget cuts are imminent for Colorado Legal Services
by Jon Asher
Director, Colorado Legal Services
The people above received advice and representation from Colorado Legal Services (CLS) offices last year. This year, we may not have the resources to help the same number of people we have helped in the past. Next year, the likelihood of their receiving help is even dimmer.
Organizations that provide services to the indigent seem to run counter to the national and local economy. As the economy weakens, the demand for services increases. At the same time, the resources available to meet the need decline dramatically.
There are approximately 500,000 Coloradans who qualify for services from Colorado Legal Services, because their income is below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
Fortunately, not all of the 500,000 face legal difficulties each year, but those who do face serious issues, frequently have no access to the legal advice and assistance they need despite our pledge of "Justice for All."
CLS has 40 attorneys statewide to provide services for indigent residents of the state. As resources decline, so too does the percentage of applicants who receive help.
Between 2001 and 2002, the Colorado Lawyers Trust Account Foundation (COLTAF), Colorado’s interest on lawyers’ trust account program, lost more than $400,000. COLTAF’s revenue is derived solely from the interest on participating attorneys’ trust accounts. As interest rates have fallen precipitously, so too has COLTAF’s ability to fund CLS, pro bono programs and other past recipients of its funds. CLS anticipates receiving even less in COLTAF funding during 2003. This reduction of 1/3 of its second-largest funding source is dramatic and devastating. Given Colorado’s economy, CLS funding from the Family Violence Justice fund, administered by the State Court Administrator to provide legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, may be reduced, or even possibly eliminated in the next state fiscal year. CLS has also suffered modest, but nonetheless significant, reductions in funding from Mile High United Way, other local funding sources and the Legal Services Corporation.
CLS is a model of public/private funding and participation. The Denver Bar Association’s Metro Volunteer Lawyers pro bono program (MVL) is housed in the Denver office of CLS. CLS staff screen, confirm financial eligibility and refer appropriate cases to MVL. Last year MVL placed more than 500 cases with pro bono attorneys and assisted more than 600 individuals through its Family Law Court program.
What can you do?
You can give. You can give funds, time and support for our efforts. You can give financially to the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado, as many of you or your firms do regularly and have already done during this year’s Denver Law Firm Campaign. The Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado has set a target, requesting that law firms give $300 per lawyer per year. Many of the most well respected law firms already have either given at this level or have pledged to do so. Many of the participating law firms are large, many are quite small, but all share a commitment to play a part in helping move toward the goal of "Justice for All."
Colorado Legal Services receives all of the proceeds, above nominal costs, raised by the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado to serve those in need.
You can keep your COLTAF account in a bank that pays a higher interest rate than many banks. Check the COLTAF Honor Roll of Banks for those that pay a more reasonable rate at www.coltaf.org.
You can give of your time. Call MVL at (303) 866-9378 and offer to take a case or two or three, or simply plan to have a pro bono case open and active at all times (the aspirational goal of the Colorado Bar Association). You may not realize how much helping one single individual with their legal problem means not only to them, but collectively to our community.
You also can encourage others to realize that a safety net of basic human services has to address and include not only medical care, housing, and physical safety, but also access to the legal assistance that may solve some of the other problems. You indeed can do a lot, if you care to do so.
These are difficult times. They are made easier by the support and generosity and the commitment of time by wonderful colleagues in the profession who share the belief that it is, in part, our responsibility to help ensure equal access to justice.