Free legal aid clinic on track to expand in January

Successful pilot program that started in Montezuma County will expand to six Colorado counties

A free legal clinic for people representing themselves in court that was piloted in Mancos will expand to six counties in January because of its success.

The clinic was started in June and allows those who choose not to hire a lawyer to meet with one via video conference at the Mancos Public library to better understand the legal process, said Ric Morgan, a lawyer, co-chair of 18th Judicial District Access to Justice Committee and organizer of the clinic.

The success of the Mancos clinic and two others set up in Montrose and Baca counties prompted the expansion. The clinics were set up by one of Colorado's access to justice committees to provide legal advice because of the growing number of people representing themselves.

During 2012, 774,000 cases were filed in Colorado, and in about 60 percent of those cases at least one of the sides was not represented by a lawyer, according to the 2014 state judicial budget request.

Across the state, the number of people representing themselves in civil cases has grown 25 percent over the past five years.

Morgan said more people are choosing to represent themselves because they can't afford an attorney and the burden of educating them on the process has fallen on the court system.

"This is an issue that we've been grappling with for quite some time," he said.

Many of these cases, locally and statewide, involve a family dispute such as a divorce or custody battle, small-claims court or disputes between tenants and landlords.

Morgan worked with Lee Hallberg, the director of the Mancos Public Library, and Caitlin Stewart, a local self-represented litigant coordinator, to set up the local clinic.

"Lee Hallberg and Caitlin Stewart are the heros of this story," he said.

So far, the local clinic has served 30 people, and the response from the community was so positive that Morgan decided to expand it.

"Everybody came back emphatically and said, You're doing great - keep it up," he said.

Morgan said that Mancos was chosen for the pilot project because few other options for legal advice existed and the response from the library was so positive.

The state is also trying to address the problem by hiring coordinators like Stewart to help people navigate the courts. Montezuma County was one of the first to hire a coordinator in November 2012. Now almost every district has one.

"Some of our chief justices in Denver did the research and felt like this service was needed," she said.

During 2012, in 67 percent of the local family court cases, at least one of the sides did not have lawyer.

Stewart, one of two coordinators for Montezuma and Dolores counties, said that in June, her first month, she counseled 20 people and in July helped 152.

In addition, she is responsible for coordinating free legal help throughout the community and contacted the Mancos Library to host the clinic.

The library's cost was minimal, and the once-a-month sessions will continue in 2014.

Hallberg, the library director, said he was unsure how high the demand for the clinic would be, but the feedback has been positive.

"I hear nothing but great things," he said.

Morgan hopes that the program can be expanded to every county in the state by the end of the decade so that the public can more effectively use the courts they pay for.

"I would like to see them feel a sense of ownership in this process because they do own it. It is their process," he said.

The Mancos clinic is hosted the second Thursday of every month from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the library.