In Colorado Springs, about 100 attorneys are working on a project that aims to provide legal access to people who in their wildest dreams could never afford to hire an attorney.
Under the umbrella of the El Paso County Bar Association, a new nonprofit organization has formed, the Pikes Peak Pro Bono Project.
And, “the expectations are huge,” said Doug Anderson, retired Fourth Judicial District Court Judge and president of the Pikes Peak Pro Bono Project. “The need is huge in the community.”
There are people who are unemployed, or underemployed, who are desperate for legal advice and guidance from an attorney, Anderson said. But, there is no way they can afford the typical $300 an hour attorney fee.
Attorneys, through the pro bono project, are hosting free legal clinics on guardianship and conservatorship, post decree and pro se (self represented) issues and in November they launched a veteran’s clinic specifically to address the legal issues of veterans.
This spring, they will make regular visits to the Marian House, Catholic Charities and meet with clients of the Silver Key senior services to answer questions and provide legal direction on such issues as wills and guardianship.
And, in a unique move, the local attorneys put together a special fee program, Modest Means, for folks who don’t qualify for free legal services but cannot afford the full attorney fees.
“It seems like people are good (financially) in Colorado Springs,” Anderson said. “Yet, there is a pretty large community of people who have been unemployed for years or dropped out of the workforce and can’t even think about trying to find a job.”
They have legal issues too, he said. They face foreclosures, custody battles, divorces and landlord-tenant problems. They are under great personal stress and feel desperate, but, can’t come up with a $2,500 retainer fee most attorneys require.
“Sometimes legal solutions can cut down on anxieties and help them move forward with life,” he said.
Local attorneys have always engaged in pro bono work. But, in recent years, with the down economy, the phone at the El Paso County Bar Association has been ringing off the hook with requests for free legal assistance, said Mary Ann Corey, pro bono coordinator. Some people were being turned away. It didn’t feel right, she said.
“There are situations where you are over income as far as the program, but you have crushing medical debt,” Corey said. “We felt we should still be able to help people like that.”
The bar association partners with Colorado Legal Services, which provides free legal service to low-income and senior citizens. But, there are strict financial guidelines that potential clients must fall under, Corey said. And, there also are limitations on the types of cases Colorado Legal Services can take, including post decree issues.
The new pro bono project is a nonprofit, with a 501c3 designation, and that gives the attorneys the ability to broaden their clientele, to go after grant money and to accept donations, Corey said.
Last year, El Paso County attorneys helped 1,643 people through its pro bono work and Ask an Attorney programs. This year, with the new clinics and expanded pro bono project, Corey expects that number to be higher.
One gap the new project hopes to fill is in pro se issues, when people represent themselves in court. Because of lack of training, those folks can clog up the system and put a strain on the courts, Corey said.
Many people choosing to represent themselves are trying to modify a judgment, for example a divorce decree or child support. Colorado Legal Services does not handle post decree cases, Corey said. But, attorneys working in the new pro bono project can pick up those cases, she said.
“There was really no place to go and the cases can go on for years,” Corey said. “People can do crazy things when they get backed into a corner.”
Attorney Jon Hertzog has been doing pro bono work for four years. He is a retired Army officer who went to law school after retiring from service. Last year, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Bender spoke to the El Paso County Bar Association, giving a passionate speech about the need to help military veterans.
His speech inspired local attorneys to start a veteran’s clinic, Hertzog said.
“We have an at-risk population that needs legal services,” Hertzog said. “After Vietnam, we saw the repercussions of soldiers coming home with issues, marital and mental. For the next 10 to 30 years in the future we will see the manifestation of the last 10 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
A veteran’s clinic was a good match to fold into the Pikes Peak Pro Bono Project, Hertzog said. Colorado Springs should be a leader in the country on helping its military veterans, he said. Local economists say the military makes up at least 40 percent of the El Paso County economy.
“It’s a moral imperative for the Colorado Springs community,” Hertzog said. “We get so much enrichment to the community because of our military community . . . we need to recognize that we need to give something back.”
Attorneys working on pro bono cases didn’t like turning away people who didn’t financially qualify for the free legal services. They created a program, Modest Means, to help moderate-income folks, those who could afford to pay about $150 an hour, but not more.
“We hated sending people away without resources,” said Claire Anderson, executive director of the El Paso County Bar Association.
Now, folks can get legal services at a lower fee — no more than $125 hourly rate and a $750 retainer. The program, which just launched last month, already has about a half-dozen local attorneys willing to work with clients for lower fees, Anderson said.
They have agreed to work on some family issues and civil rights issues, including police misconduct and false arrest. They also will work on landlord/tenant issues and some criminal law cases, including parole, felony criminal defense and early release of probation.
“People should have access to the court system,” Corey said. “It shouldn’t matter if they are wealthy or poor. For me, people need to know that others care.”