In 2007, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that nicely sums up the way the U.S. legal system works these days. "You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin," one man says to another across a desk. "How much justice can you afford?"
It's not just a punchline, either. The success of a litigant's case is often directly tied to whether that litigant was able to use an attorney. And with the current historic divide between the rich and the rest of us, it's not just a question of access to an attorney. It's a question of access to justice.
And it's getting worse, says Pikes Peak Pro Bono Project board member Jon Hertzog.
"I think the access-to-justice problem is one of the Top 5 social issues in Colorado Springs that's not being met," says the lawyer. "And the legal world knows about it. But the average everyday guy on the street doesn't know about it, because they don't go to the courthouse. And the people that need this assistance that aren't getting it — they're generally disadvantaged, so they're not on TV. They're just in the shadows. They don't really have a voice."
Often, those disadvantaged people are limited by a disability, or chronic illness or cancer. They've sometimes been emotionally or physically abused, or come from a broken family. Some have learning disabilities, or an addiction problem. And some just don't make enough money.
The Great Recession widened the legal gap, even as it pulled people into the courts over debt collection suits, or bankruptcy actions, or foreclosures of their homes. Today, Hertzog estimates that 30 percent of Coloradans — 1.8 million people — cannot afford an attorney for civil matters.
It's a different story in the criminal arena, where, since 1965 and the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, states have been compelled to provide legal counsel for citizens facing jail time. The Colorado Access to Justice Commission's "Justice Crisis in Colorado 2014" report says 420 public defenders exist to serve the indigent. By comparison, "[Colorado Legal Services], the primary provider of civil legal aid services in Colorado, has just 47 lawyers ..."
It's a gap the Pro Bono Project feels keenly. And having incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in recent years, and reshuffled a myriad of local outreach programs to come underneath its umbrella, the organization is addressing it as far as its grant-funded $44,000 budget allows. That amount pays for 39-year-old lawyer Sara Brewen, a former JAG officer in the Navy, to coordinate the Project and cover scattered office supplies.
After that, it's all on the local participating attorneys, who advised 1,400 people and donated an estimated $325,000 worth of legal time in 2014. This year, the group says it's on pace to help 1,600 people, all going through a triage process that last year saw 28 cases placed with an attorney for full representation.
Family law is far and away the primary reason people seek out the Project, says Brewen: divorce cases, allocation of parental responsibility, child support, spousal support, visitation. According to the Justice Crisis report, 76 percent of all parties in domestic relations cases are representing themselves, pro se — a problem, considering the barrier to understanding the process.
Says Project board member Judge Timothy Schutz, 52: "The ethical rules have been liberalized a little bit recently, for judges, to allow us to take a little bit more active role in kind of steering people to appropriate resources," he says. "But for obvious reasons, we can't advocate for them or be their representative when we're occupying that neutral position."
To help, the Pro Bono Project stations a volunteer attorney in the county courthouse's self-help center for four hours a week. Also, the Project hosts an ask-a-lawyer event at The Citadel mall on the second Saturday of every month; a second one at the Marian House Soup Kitchen on the fourth Saturday of every month; and a call-a-lawyer option the third Thursday of every month. (See bit.ly/1E2Mzzt for more.) It also operates the Modest Means program, which offers legal services to successful applicants at reduced cost.
"Unfortunately, the need is just momentous," says Brewen. "I would say on average I get 40 to 50 applications a month. And that's not even taking into account the people that just go to our clinics to get advice."
Asked if the problem wasn't somewhat self-created by attorneys charging high fees, Schutz says he thinks that's part of it, but that the issue is more complicated. Either way, it's clear the group feels there's a lot riding on services like theirs.
"The notion that everybody has their day in court, nobody is above the law in the legal system, is really central to us, really defining of who we are," says Schutz. "And so if we ever get to the point where the average person doesn't have the ability to access the courts in a real way — and, accordingly, doesn't have any confidence in the legal process — then the rule of law and how central it is to our sense of self as a country and as a people will really be compromised.
"That's what we're fighting."
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