President's Column: The Importance of Legal Services
by Elsa Martinez Tenreiro
The Colorado Access to Justice Commission made history in October and November this year by holding hearings across the state to discuss the unmet needs for legal services to the poor. The Commission was formed in 2003 under the leadership of Connie Talmage, with 20 members selected by the governor, the legislature, the Supreme Court and the Colorado Bar Association.
Several witnesses testified about the need for legal services in Colorado and the Denver area, and about the limited resources available to provide those services. The small portion of funds allocated by the state for legal services are earmarked for victims of family violence. Private firms, nonprofit organizations and foundations provide for the majority of Colorado’s funding for legal services to low-income individuals.
Meredith McBurney, American Bar Association resource development consultant, explained that Colorado is well above the national norm in private funding sources. However, Colorado is 28th in the nation for funding for legal services to the poor. We would need an additional $2.7 million just to be average in the United States.
The Denver legal community has come together to provide some of the legal services needed through Metro Volunteer Lawyers. However, MVL only provides legal help to a small percentage of those who need it. The agency is staffed by only three-and-a-half full-time employees, and are strained to respond to all the needs of the Denver-metro area.
At the Denver hearing, Jon Asher, director of Colorado Legal Services, testified that only one in two qualified, eligible applicants actually is provided any kind of services, and that of those who are provided services, only one in 10 receive full legal services. "We are forced to turn away all but the most urgent cases," he said. "However, we try to make sure we can give those people we turn away as much advice as possible before they leave."
To qualify for legal services through Colorado Legal Services, the individual must meet the federal poverty guidelines. In Colorado that is $2,151 per month, or $25,813 per year for a family of four.
Diane Postel, with Safehouse Denver, testified that they "have served almost 1,300 clients this year, and almost all of them needed some sort of legal assistance. Unfortunately, most of them don’t have the means to find legal resources." She continued: "We rely on Colorado Legal Services and Project Safeguard to help, but that is still not enough. Sending domestic violence victims into the courtroom to represent themselves and face their abusers alone is the last thing we want to see happen."
Postel also stated that individuals faced with even one problem, such as family violence, often are forced into a vicious cycle that promotes homelessness and housing issues, collection issues, bankruptcy, and bad credit. These issues impact employability and the ability to earn income, further continuing the cycle and forcing individuals below poverty guidelines. She explained that legal services are essential to these families to help guide them through these legal problems.
The ATJ hearings brought to light the serious problems facing a large number of Colorado families and low-income individuals. Colorado’s rapid population growth, high rate of foreclosures, inadequate and unaffordable low-income housing, growing high school drop-out rates, and limited Medicaid programs are critical issues with legal consequences to the poor.
As a result of the hearings, the ATJ Commission will write a report to be given to Gov. Ritter and every legislator in the state when the legislative session begins in January. The commission plans to tell state government that Colorado is in desperate need of an increase in funding, and will ask that they help supply it.
I would urge you to write your local representative or senator and ask them to consider funding legal services to the poor. Those attorneys who have provided pro bono legal services need to let the legislature know how many pro bono hours they have provided, which only account for a portion of the legal services that are needed to make the courts accessible to low income earners.
As attorneys in Denver, we should be proud that we are well above the national standard in providing private funding and pro bono legal service hours. However, we cannot ignore the fact that only one person in two who requires legal services and meets the poverty guidelines actually receives legal services. The ATJ Commission and the Denver ATJ Committee should be commended for bringing this information to the forefront and in addressing the needs of the poor in accessing justice.