Legal Resource Day helps residents navigate court
September 30, 2016
The docket at the Summit County Court was empty yesterday, Sept. 30, but there was a flurry of activity nonetheless. At least 22 people passed through the main entrance's metal detector to partake in Legal Resource Day, an event offering free legal advice and instructive sessions with lawyers for people choosing to represent themselves in civil court.
According to the Colorado Judicial Department, more and more people each year are choosing to represent themselves in court. In Summit County, roughly 70 percent of civil domestic cases have at least one party self-representing.
Standing before the judge without a lawyer at your side, however, can be intimidating, and our circuitous legal system creates plenty of opportunities for slip-ups.
"It's important that people understand how these courtroom procedures work," said District Court Chief Judge Mark Thompson, who delivered opening remarks to kick off the event. "Then they can present and explain their cases more effectively and efficiently."
Five local attorneys volunteered their time to offer one-on-one sessions with citizens and give them legal advice and procedural direction.
"A friend called me last night and told me I should definitely be here," one attendee said. "I'm filing on my own and I just needed a little more guidance."
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Also on offer were free, hour-long presentations on guardianship reporting, conservatorship reporting and courtroom procedures.
The first session, delivered by the 5th Judicial District's protective proceedings monitor, offered attendees a refresher course on filing their guardianship reports for custody arrangements, which can sometimes involve a raft of forms.
"I'm sort of the hall monitor for custody cases," noted the proceedings monitor. "I have some that go back as far as 1987, and sometimes people get mixed up on their documents."
"There are probably many reasons why more people are choosing to self-represent," said Mary Perry, the Fifth's self-represented litigant coordinator. "One factor here is we have a lot of well-educated people who figure they can navigate the system on their own."
But, Perry said, that system is very complicated, and even with her years of experience shepherding people through legal hedge mazes, she still has to occasionally refresh her memory on which form goes where and when.
Self-representation can also be expensive — and extremely time-consuming — so several nonprofits that offer free legal advice and services were in attendance handing out literature.
One of them, Colorado Legal Services, was signing qualified people up for free legal representation from local lawyers who volunteer their time. They deal primarily in domestic abuse cases but also range into evictions, bankruptcy and foreclosures. The group also offers clinics on how to seal cases, which can help people with criminal records who have turned a corner in their life clear their records for the job hunt.
Colorado Legal Services offers free services to people who make up to 125 percent of the poverty level, and is funded by a patchwork of federal and state money, as well as local philanthropic contributions.
Summit Advocates was also getting the word out about its free legal advocate service for victims of crime, primarily domestic violence. They also assist with custody and child protection issues.
"We're pretty well-known in the area, but there might be some people, like transients, who may not know they can turn to us," said a representative of the group.
Yesterday was the first time Summit County has hosted a legal resource day, and by all accounts it was a success. As the final session ended, people filtered out to fill out satisfaction surveys, and several expressed relief that they had been able to speak with attorneys one-on-one for no charge.
"Free is a pretty good price," Perry said.
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