June 24, 2017

Colorado Gives: Legal Aid Foundation Helps Provide Free Civil Legal Services to Low-income Coloradoans

Colorado Gives: CBA CLE Legal Connection will be focusing on several Colorado legal charities in the next few days to prepare for Colorado Gives Day, December 6, 2016. These charities, and many, many others, greatly appreciate your donations of time and money.

laf_logo1The Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado raises money for Colorado Legal Services (CLS), Colorado’s statewide Legal Aid program. CLS is the only agency in the state that provides free legal services in civil cases to indigent clients in every Colorado county.

CLS operates like a legal emergency room. In conducting its triage, it gives priority to the poor and elderly in greatest economic and social need, focusing on legal issues that have an impact on basic needs, including at least minimally adequate income, food, shelter, utilities, necessary medical care, and freedom from domestic violence and abuse.

CLS provides legal services in many areas of law, including domestic relations, landlord-tenant disputes, guardianships and conservatorships, wage claims, bankruptcy protection, nursing home eviction prevention, and more. Eighty percent of low-income people have trouble obtaining legal representation in court to protect their property, family, and livelihood when dealing with evictions, foreclosures, unpaid wages, domestic violence, and public benefits. The Legal Aid Foundation helps bridge the justice gap by allowing low-income Coloradoans to obtain legal representation.

The Legal Aid Foundation relies on community donations to support CLS and ensure that low-income people receive legal representation. To schedule a donation for Colorado Gives Day, click here. To donate through the Legal Aid Foundation website, click here. And, to volunteer through Colorado Legal Services, click here.

 

About the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado

The Legal Aid Foundation raises money for Colorado Legal Services, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income Coloradans who are facing serious civil legal problems. For more information, please visit legalaidfoundation.org.

Colorado Legal Services (CLS) provides legal representation and advice through a network of 13 offices around the state, as well as easy-to-understand, online self-help information and state-of-the art interactive forms that can be used in civil proceedings.

Toni-Anne Dasent Named Executive Director of Metro Volunteer Lawyers

toni-anne-dasentThe Denver Bar Association is pleased to announce Toni-Anne Dasent as the new director of Metro Volunteer Lawyers (MVL). She assumed her responsibilities on August 22, 2016.

Dasent holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Windsor, Canada, where she also served as director and group advisor of the university’s Community Legal Aid Program. She went on to become a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada in Ontario, and after spending some time working for Canada’s largest law firm, she relocated to Colorado in 1994.

Shortly after moving to Colorado, Dasent started as an intake volunteer for the Legal Aid Society (now Colorado Legal Services). After passing the bar exam, she continued to work as a volunteer attorney, devoting her energies to Project Safeguard in Judge Brian Campbell’s Denver courtroom. There, she assisted clients who were seeking restraining orders. Her dedication to helping underserved populations with their civil legal matters fueled her longstanding commitment to volunteering with MVL’s Family Law Court Program and taking on individual cases in a pro bono capacity.

Dasent is well-versed in MVL’s 50-year history and wants to ensure that the organization remains a dynamic force in promoting a more equitable society. “As director of MVL, I am looking forward to working with a dedicated and knowledgeable team to continue to provide access to justice for those in our community who would otherwise not be able to obtain fair and competent legal representation,” commented Dasent. She feels fortunate to have a team that works with Colorado Legal Services to assist many clients through the Family Law Court Program, Pro Bono Attorney Program, Post Decree Clinic, Power of Attorney Clinic and Legal Clinic at the Denver Indian Center. “I am grateful for the dedication and hard work of the current and past team members and past directors who have achieved so much in their time,” she said.

For Dasent, MVL is more than a job: It is a passion infused with responsibility. “My intent is to steadfastly promote those aspects of legal services in which we excel and work toward achieving greatness in those areas where there is room for improvement,” she explained. “I look forward to working with the Denver Bar Association and Colorado Legal Services in this new capacity and to continuing to provide exemplary services to our community.”

Colorado Supreme Court Authorizes Transfer of Surplus Attorney Registration Funds to Colorado Legal Services

On Friday, May 11, 2012, the Colorado Supreme Court announced that it has voted unanimously to transfer $750,000 in 2012, and another $750,000 in 2013, from the Court’s attorney registration fund to Colorado Legal Services.

Colorado Legal Services will use the funds to further its mission of providing pro bono legal services in civil matters to Colorado’s indigent population.

“Our profession has an obligation to serve all of Colorado, including those who cannot afford to pay a lawyer for representation in civil matters,” Chief Justice Michael L. Bender said.

Chief Justice Bender also noted that none of the monies being transferred come from taxpayer dollars or will have any future impact on taxpayers.

“The funds being made available to Colorado Legal Services come solely from fees paid to the Court’s Office of Attorney Registration,” he said.  “I believe all Colorado attorneys should see this as a wise use of resources to ensure procedural fairness prevails for all who come to the courts seeking assistance.”

The Supreme Court took the transfer request under advisement earlier this year when approached by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Access to Justice Commission.  The Court found the attorney registration fund had a surplus and concluded that using some of the money for this purpose would have no negative impact on the Office of Attorney Registration or Office of Attorney Regulation.

Colorado Legal Services is a flagship provider of civil legal services and in the past few saw a significant downturn in its funding sources.  Without the Court’s authorization to transfer the monies, Colorado Legal Services would have been forced to close some of its offices and lay off numerous staff members.

CBA Board of Governors Support Request to Courts to Provide Emergency Funding to Legal Aid

The Colorado Bar Association voted to request that the Colorado Supreme Court allocate a portion of the funds received from attorney registration fees to help meet an emergency shortfall in funding for civil legal services at a special meeting of the Board of Governors on Thursday, February 16.

CBA President David Masters sits with Colorado Access to Justice Commission Chair Fred Baumann, CBA Executive Director Chuck Turner, and CBA Assistant Executive Director Dana Collier Smith.

For the past three years, Colorado Legal Services (a nonprofit corporation that has assisted low-income people and seniors with civil legal issues in Colorado for more than 85 years) has been faced with decreased funding from three of its primary resources : federal  appropriations through the Legal Services Corporation, grants from COLTAF (the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation), and state funding from the Family Violence Justice Fund. Indeed, CLS is anticipating about $3.2 million dollars less in funding this fiscal year than it received in 2009—a decrease of about 30 percent.

The Colorado Supreme Court has approximately $12.4 million in its attorney regulation cash fund, of which, approximately $8.6 million is allocated to the Office of Attorney Regulation. The proposal is for CLS to receive two contributions of an amount to be determined by the Supreme Court, one in 2012 and one in 2013. According to supporters, this would limit the impacts of these cuts in funding to CLS allowing them to maintain services to low-income clients. This funding would be limited to two emergency payments only.

At the meeting, members of the Board of Governors voiced their support and concerns about requesting that the court allocate money for legal services from its attorney registration fees. Opponents of the request said while they understand the need for legal aid funding, they were concerned that there was not a long-term funding plan presented to ensure that legal aid finds a solution to its funding deficits.

Members of the CBA’s Board of Governors attended in person at the CBA-CLE offices and via the phone.

Others were concerned as to whether the court could spend these funds. Members were assured that even though the last fee increase in attorney registration fees was back in 2006, there are adequate funds for the operation of the Office of Attorney Regulation, even with this proposed transfer.  Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court has discretion over the spending of this money and will make the final decision on whether to provide this emergency funding to CLS.

Supporters noted that all attorneys are aware of the backlog of civil cases and that people struggle to navigate that system alone; requesting this funding would allow CLS to continue its mission and serve those who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney.

Following a failed motion to table the discussion until the May Board of Governors meeting, the request was approved overwhelmingly with only a handful of nays.

The resolution states:

Whereas, the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors recognizes the significant contributions to the goal of ensuring equal access to the courts in the State of Colorado made by Colorado Legal Services (CLS) and its predecessors for many years in providing representation to Colorado’s indigent citizens in a wide variety of civil matters;

Whereas, over the past three years, CLS has experienced significant decreases in funding that will greatly limit its ability to carry out its mission during at least the next two years;

Whereas, the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors determines that the continued funding, operation, and support of CLS is necessary to protect Colorado’s indigent population; further the interests of Colorado attorneys and Colorado Bar Association members in just and efficient courts; and ensure access to equal justice within the Colorado legal system; and

Whereas, the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors is informed that the Colorado Supreme Court currently has available to it significant surplus funds from attorney registration fees paid by Colorado attorneys, which the Colorado Supreme Court might allocate to help alleviate the short-term crisis at CLS;

Now therefore, the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors resolves that the Colorado Bar Association president provide a written request on behalf of the Colorado Bar Association that the Colorado Supreme Court authorize two annual, sizable emergency payments from surplus funds in the attorney registration fund to Colorado Legal Services.

Colorado’s Justice Crisis

It’s a perfect storm.  Although overused, that metaphor so accurately captures what is happening with respect to Colorado’s legal aid delivery system that it is difficult to avoid.  Just as in a perfect storm, a rare combination of circumstances has resulted in a crisis of unprecedented magnitude.

Colorado Legal Services (CLS) is the only program in the state that provides free legal assistance (advice, brief service, and full representation) in civil matters to low-income individuals and families in every Colorado county.  With 14 offices around the state, it operates like a legal emergency room, serving low income Coloradans at greatest risk and in greatest need.  In 2010 alone, CLS provided assistance to over 11,000 indigent clients facing serious legal problems that directly implicated their health, safety, stability and sufficiency.  With few exceptions, CLS clients live at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline (which translates to an annual income of $13,613 for an individual and $27,938 for a family of four).  They include senior citizens, victims of domestic violence, veterans, persons with mental and physical disabilities, and other particularly vulnerable Coloradans.

Even before the recession, the need for legal aid among the poor outstripped available resources.  A study in 2005 found that for every client served by CLS, at least one person seeking help was turned away because of insufficient resources.  The Great Recession and its aftermath have made the situation dramatically worse, as more and more low-income Coloradans experience the significant legal problems that accompany acute economic distress and prolonged unemployment.  With the deterioration of the labor and housing markets, rising fuel and food costs, and depleted savings, more Coloradans are facing eviction, foreclosure, delinquent child support, hunger, financial distress, bankruptcy, and domestic violence.  In addition, prolonged un- or under-employment means that the number of people eligible for legal aid continues to rise.  The most recent Census Bureau survey found that there are now over 750,000 Coloradans who are income-eligible for services.

Amidst this rising tide of need, CLS is experiencing devastating funding losses that threaten to compromise its ability to meet even the most serious legal needs of the poor.  Federal funding, with strong bipartisan support, has long been a financial foundation for legal aid.  Yet, notwithstanding the increased need for legal services and the value of those services in stabilizing families in crisis, just before Thanksgiving, Congress approved a budget bill for 2012 that includes a 14.85% cut in funding for legal aid programs such as CLS.  This translates into a loss for Colorado of over $605,000.

This latest reduction in federal funding comes on top of other funding losses suffered over the last two years totaling nearly $1 million.  Most notable among these is the drop in funding from COLTAF, the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation.  The extended period of very low interest rates that we are experiencing (now expected to continue until at least mid-2013) has decimated COLTAF’s revenue, which is comprised solely of the interest earned on lawyers’ trust accounts, and although COLTAF has a reserve, built in better times for just such times as these, it is rapidly being depleted.  Even with the reserve, COLTAF funding for CLS has dropped by $630,000 over the course of the last two years, and COLTAF is projecting another cut to CLS of at least $520,000 in 2012.

Also important is a loss of $165,000 in state funding for legal services for victims of domestic violence.  Whether the state will be in a position to restore that funding for fiscal year 2013 remains to be seen, but an actual increase in the state appropriation, and certainly one anywhere near the magnitude necessary to cover for other losses, is not in the cards, given the state’s current budget constraints.  All told, by the end of 2012, CLS will likely be down over $2 million, or more than 20% of its funding just two years ago.

All of these funding losses mean that CLS, already woefully understaffed, will shrink further, which will necessarily reduce the legal assistance available to low-income Coloradans, regardless of their legal need.  Already, where there were six CLS lawyers doing family law cases in the Denver metro area, which has an indigent population of nearly 300,000, now there will be only five;  where there were four lawyers handling evictions and other housing issues, three will have to suffice; and where there were three doing foreclosure defense, now there will be two.  Other parts of the state are faring no better.  In Grand Junction, with an indigent population in Mesa County of about 17,000, there are now only two CLS lawyers, where formerly there were three.  The CLS offices in Colorado Springs and Alamosa have each lost a paralegal, and the Durango office has lost the sole member of its support staff, leaving just three lawyers and a paralegal to serve the entire southwest corner of the state, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservations.  This serious understaffing is only going to get worse.

Bar-sponsored pro bono programs alone cannot be expected to pick up this much slack, particularly since they too are suffering from cuts in their COLTAF funding.  Nor can the court system, also suffering from inadequate funding, be expected to seamlessly absorb ever larger numbers of pro se litigants, especially if timely legal assistance would have eliminated the need for them to be there in the first place.  It is true that to maximize access for those in greatest need, a well-functioning civil legal aid delivery system must have well-managed pro bono programs; it must have a legal community committed to providing pro bono services to the poor; it must have self-help resources that make courts and administrative agencies accessible for those who are proceeding pro se; and it must maximize its use of technology to improve access in rural areas and otherwise.  But the backbone of any well-functioning system must be an adequately-funded, staffed legal aid program, with lawyers and paralegals, who are expert in dealing with the problems unique to low-income populations, and who are available on demand when low-income families are in crisis and time is of the essence.

The legal profession has a singular responsibility to respond to this crisis in our civil justice system.  CLS is the place of last resort for low-income families, the disabled, veterans and military families, and seniors who are facing serious civil legal problems.  If turned away, these Coloradans are effectively denied the rights, remedies, and protections afforded by the law, sometimes with devastating consequences – lethal injuries at the hands of an abusive spouse, a home lost to an unscrupulous lender, life on the street because of a wrongful denial of disability benefits.  As lawyers, we understand that the rule of law is in jeopardy when the protections of the law are not available to increasingly large numbers of our most vulnerable citizens.

The leadership of lawyers – whether in private practice or in-house corporate counsel, large firm or solo practice, government or nonprofit – is more important than ever in fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal justice for all.  The effect of CLS’ funding losses is calculable in terms of dollars lost, staff positions eliminated, and additional applicants for service turned away.  But the actual impact on the lives of low-income Coloradans, the damage to our communities, the tarnishing of our nation’s fundamental promise of equal justice, and the risk to our civil justice system and the rule of law is immeasurable.

Here are some things you can do to help:

  1. Give generously to the Legal Aid Foundation (http://www.legalaidfoundation.org/).
  2. Take a pro bono case from Metro Volunteer Lawyers (http://www.metrovolunteerlawyers.org/).
  3. Speak to your elected representatives (federal and state) about the importance of public funding for civil justice.
  4. Speak with your banker to ensure that the interest rate on your COLTAF account is as generous as possible.
Diana Poole is the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Foundation, which raises money for Colorado Legal Services, and COLTAF, which administers Colorado’s IOLTA program. She is also a member of the Colorado Access to Justice Commission.

Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado Marks Thirtieth Anniversary

This year the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado marks its Thirtieth Anniversary of improving access to justice in Colorado and held an event on September 15 to recognize and thank its generous contributors and dedicated advocates for the organization.  The Legal Aid Foundation raises money for Colorado Legal Services, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income Coloradans who are facing serious civil legal issues.

A number of Colorado legal luminaries attended the event, including former Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, Attorney General John Suthers, and current Legal Aid Foundation Board Chair Hugh Gottschalk of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell.  It was inspiring to see the legal community’s support for Colorado Legal Services in their efforts to help victims of domestic violence, families facing unlawful eviction, seniors wrongfully denied nutrition assistance or health care, and others facing seemingly insurmountable situations.

Colorado Legal Services Executive Director Jonathan Asher thanked his staff for their tireless efforts to help individuals and families receive the access to justice they deserve.  In the face of federal budget cuts, support from the legal community, including law firms and individual attorneys, is more important than ever.  The community has been incredibly generous with financial contributions to the foundation over the years and it seemed clear that they will continue to recognize the need for this critical and indispensable resource.

Click here to learn more about The Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado and how you can contribute to the cause.

Legal Aid Once Again on the Chopping Block – How the Bar Can Respond

“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists . . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.” – Lewis Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice (ret.)

Legal aid is not just a poor person’s issue. “Access to justice is correctly seen as a necessary foundation for a just, vibrant, democratic society,” Lonnie Powers writes in “Tied to the Railroad Track Once Again: The Perils of Legal Aid Funding” for The Nonprofit Quarterly. This may not come as a surprise to some of you, but Colorado Legal Services (CLS), our statewide legal aid agency, is experiencing significant funding cuts that are compromising its ability to meet even the most essential legal needs of Colorado’s low-income population. CLS has only half the staff and at least twice as many clients as it did 40 years ago. With the looming funding cuts, all CLS most likely will be able to do is manage intake and turn prospective clients away. We cannot let this happen. As a profession, we have the power to help solve this crisis.

The Facts

Here are the basic funding facts you need to know:

  • Cuts in federal funding in this fiscal year will cost CLS approximately $170,000 from now through December, and much larger federal funding cuts in 2012 are likely.
  • A reduction in state funding will cost CLS approximately an additional $165,000 over the next 12 months.
  • Another key funding source for legal services comes through interest on lawyers’ trust accounts with the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation (COLTAF). With interest rates remaining near zero, COLTAF funding continues to be severely compromised. CLS lost $440,000 in COLTAF funding in 2010, and will lose another $200,000 to $250,000 before the end of 2011.
  • The need for civil legal aid has outpaced funding for years. Even before this current crisis, CLS was turning away at least as many eligible clients as it served due to a lack of resources.

The Effects

As funding continues to be cut, the impact will be devastating.

  • More and more eligible Coloradans will go without the services of an attorney and will not have the support they need to assert their rights in desperate situations. This includes women seeking safety from domestic violence for themselves and their children, returning veterans entitled to benefits, and seniors facing foreclosure.
  • There exists a real potential for the layoff of staff attorneys, closure of CLS offices, and less access to an attorney for Colorado residents living outside our metropolitan areas.
  • The prolonged economic crisis has driven many families into poverty, often for the first time, producing even greater demand for assistance from the already overstretched CLS.
  • Ultimately, there will be a reduction in the quality of representation that CLS can offer those Coloradans who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.

Our Profession Can Take
Ownership of this Looming Issue

Our esteemed profession has responded to this very same issue of funding cuts in the past by creating COLTAF, first initiating and then increasing bar-sponsored pro bono programs, giving generously to the Legal Aid Foundation, and combating efforts in Congress to eliminate all federal funding for civil legal aid—and we can certainly do it again. We can take ownership of this issue—otherwise, we will be GIVING UP on providing civil legal aid.

We now have the chance to reaffirm the institutional role that lawyers and law firms play in supporting the civil justice system and cultivating a sense of responsibility for access to justice among younger and older attorneys alike. As lawyers, we are fortunate to have a certain level of education, wealth, and connections through which we can make things happen. I know that none of us are immune to today’s economic realities, but I ask you to just imagine how much tougher times are for a family that is about to lose a home, for victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans, and others whose health and safety are at risk every day. If all of us took at least one necessary step to help address the problem, it can and will be solved.

The Most Immediate Ways for You to Help

I am aware that there are many problems in our world that appear beyond our ability to assist. This is not one of them if we as a profession step forward. I offer 10 things you can do today that will help solve this problem and improve access to justice for needy individuals and families:

  1. Call Metropolitan Volunteer Lawyers (303-830-8210), or any other legal aid program in Denver that you’d like to volunteer for, and take a pro bono case.
  2. Make a charitable gift to the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado at legalaidfoundation.org. Funds raised by the Legal Aid Foundation go to support CLS.
  3. Call your banker and ask for an increase in the interest rate paid on your COLTAF account (the interest earned on those accounts goes to support CLS and Colorado’s civil legal aid delivery system).
  4. Call members of the Colorado congressional delegation to urge their support for an increase in federal funding for legal aid through the Legal Services Corporation.
  5. Call your state senator and representative to urge their support for an increase in state funding for legal aid through the Family Violence Justice Fund. Legal services can have a preventative effect that actually saves money for the state. For example, housing a family in a homeless shelter for just a few weeks is more expensive than supporting a legal aid lawyer that can help a family remain in stable housing (see “The Budget-Slashing Hysteria’s Latest Victim: Legal Aid for the Poor” in Mother Jones).
  6. Amend your written retainer agreement to request client consent to donate any unexpended nominal funds to the Legal Aid Foundation after a reasonable time, in the event the client’s whereabouts are no longer known to you and reasonable efforts to locate the client have been unsuccessful. See CBA Ethics Opinion 95.
  7. If you are a trial lawyer negotiating a class action settlement, consider proposing a cy pres provision that directs unclaimed funds to the Legal Aid Foundation.
  8. Include the Legal Aid Foundation in your estate plan.
  9. Forward this article to your fellow attorneys and citizens and encourage them to take one of these steps, as well.
  10. Give to the Legal Aid Foundation again!

The DBA is also looking into ways it might better assist its members by matching them up with all types of pro bono cases—stay tuned for more information on this. Thank you for taking the time to read my first column for The Docket. I think it is important to discuss this issue. Please feel free to respond with your thoughts and feedback to ilenebloom@hotmail.com.

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