Summit County Justice Center hosts annual Legal Resource Day
The courtroom dockets were completely empty at the Summit County Justice Center on Thursday, but residents nonetheless walked in throughout the day to take part in the Fifth Judicial District’s Legal Resource Day.
Legal Resource Day is an annual statewide event meant to help individuals who are choosing to self-litigate cases navigate the often-complicated waters of the legal system. In Summit County, the day is primarily set aside to provide free resources for individuals facing domestic relations cases on issues like divorce and custody, as well as ancillary services like parenting classes, one-on-one meetings with attorneys, mediation and more.
“The goal statewide is justice for all,” said Mary Perry, self-represented litigant coordinator for the Fifth Judicial District. “The goal is to provide better access to as many people as we can who need these services through events like this and education in the community. … This is a great opportunity to get our agencies and our community educated about the resources available to help them with their legal matters.”
The event first emerged as the brainchild of Fifth Judicial District Family Court facilitator Laurie Mactavish in 2014, after suggesting to a group of judges congregated in Eagle County that the district begin offering free services a couple days per year. According to Mactavish, the program has now grown to at least 11 of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts, each offering a diversity of services.
According to Perry, the number of individuals choosing to represent themselves in court is quite high. In 2017, 75 percent of Colorado parties going to court for domestic relations issues — divorce, property settlements and child support to name a few — were self-represented. In the Fifth Judicial District — Summit, Clear Creek, Eagle and Lake counties — 71 percent of parties in a domestic relations case represented themselves.
Given the number of individuals in the area choosing to self-litigate, Legal Resource Day has become a valuable asset for community members. Mactavish noted that her office typically has about 150 domestic relations cases open at any given time, and that many of the parties involved choose to utilize the free resources.
“The services we provide today serve, on average, a third of open domestic relations cases open at the moment,” said Mactavish.
For participants in Legal Resource Day, the offerings are diverse and wide-ranging. Among others, the district offers sessions on complicated legal issues such as guardianship reporting and conservatorship reporting, as well as a classroom basics lesson for more practical and procedural advice on taking a case to trial. Additionally, the program offers more tangential resources such as mediation, child development specialists and parenting classes. All resources are available in both English and Spanish.
But one of the keystone elements of the program is offering free sessions with licensed attorneys, where visitors can lean on experts for any legal advice they need.
“I think this is a really valuable thing for people to have in the community,” said Steven O’Connor, attorney with Carlson and Carlson in Frisco. “What we do is nice, but at the end of the day it’s a for-profit business. So to be able to do this for people who can’t ordinarily afford lawyers is a tremendous resource to give to people.
“The reason why you would have an attorney get involved is because they know things about the process you don’t know. Whenever people come in I give them a recent statistic that over 90 percent of cases in this state in the family law context have at least one party not represented by council. And I tell people what they should appreciate from that statistic is lawyers are very expensive and you can do this without them,” O-Conner continued. “So I think the utility with opportunities like this is that there are people who are involved in litigation because it’s not that hard to get in the door. It’s when you get in the door and what happens from there that people struggle with. … I view this as sort of a filter for people who are close to getting good outcomes, they just don’t know how close they are to getting them. This is a huge resource for people to be able to do that.”
Additionally, the event offers local and state organizations the opportunity to set up tables inside the courthouse to spread information and help educate community members about their services outside the courtroom. Of note, organizations such as FIRC, Summit County Child Support Services and the Northwest Colorado Legal Services Project were in attendance among others.
“I think it’s wonderful the courts do this and give us the opportunity to be here and make everyone aware of our services,” said Patricia Craig, administrator of the local program for the Northwest Colorado Legal Services Project. “It’s hard, especially when you’re in the middle of problems, to be aware of the services around you in the community. So it’s nice to have this opportunity in a low-stress setting for people to come in and talk to us and see what we can do for them.”
While the day is primarily set up for educational purposes, there are opportunities for individuals to actually settle cases. Chief Judge Mark Thompson, along with County Judge Karen Romeo and Eagle County Judge Paul Dunkelman, all made themselves available to hear cases.
“A couple could come in, attend the parenting class, go see an attorney, talk to a child development specialist, end up in mediation and they could finalize their case in front of the judge if the timing were right,” said Mactavish.
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