Nearly 187,000 civil cases were heard in the state of Colorado during the 2022 fiscal year, excluding Denver County, according to the Colorado Judicial Branch. In these cases, 86% of responding parties went without attorneys. The number was higher for county civil cases, of which there were nearly 131,000, where the responding party pro se rate was 97%.
When compared to the filing party pro se rate of 20%, the gap between legal representation is stark. According to the 2021 Colorado Access to Justice Commission, “Coloradans from all walks of life face daunting barriers to civil justice, including the complexity of legal matters and the often-prohibitive cost of legal assistance.”
Recently, Colorado Legal Services, in conjunction with the CAJC, were awarded a grant from the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit, to build a self-help website to help Coloradans find the most current and appropriate legal information for common legal issues.
Law Week talked with Matt Baca, the executive director of CLS, about the lack of civil legal aid in Colorado, and how he hopes the website will help. In regards to its collaboration with CAJC on the project, Baca told Law Week that CLS is “incredibly grateful for [its] partnership with the Colorado Access to Justice Commission and its executive director, Elisa Overall,” and “looking forward to continued partnership.”
A Lack of Resources, Particularly in Rural Colorado
This lack of legal aid is particularly acute for Coloradans who can’t afford or access a lawyer for their civil cases. Baca told Law Week there are “just 0.66 legal aid attorneys for every 10,000 eligible low-income residents in Colorado, second-to-last among western states.” While that number is small state-wide, the problem is more pronounced in many of Colorado’s rural counties.
A 2023 investigation by the Denver Post found that 23 of Colorado’s counties fell under a legal desert definition. In Bent, Costilla, Crowley and Hinsdale counties, there were no active attorneys with registered addresses, according to the data collected by Denver Post. In total, roughly 261,000 people live in those counties, about half the population of Wyoming, “which receives over six times the amount of state funding for legal aid per capita that Colorado does,” according to Baca.
The impact of the scarcity of civil legal resources extends beyond low-income individuals as well. According to the CAJC report, “while low-income individuals are often the focus of conversations about the civil justice gap, access to adequate legal resources is a problem that reaches well into the middle class, where many individuals find the cost of hiring a lawyer is more than they can afford.”
The issues Coloradans face in civil law courts are “connected to their most basic needs – housing, family, food security, health care, job security, immigration status, and safety,” and they “are often left to navigate the exceedingly complex legal system without the help of an attorney,” noted the report.
A Website to Help Fill the Legal Aid Gap
Baca told Law Week CLS has “long worked to give [clients] access to up-to-date resources,” and the grant and website were “the result of recent efforts to pool [statewide knowledge] with other organizations and legal experts to fill a growing need and make sure there is a one-stop shop for legal knowledge in Colorado.”
The grant and website come at an important time, as a recent CLS report noted requests for civil legal assistance were returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Baca explained the “website will provide understandable, searchable information on a wide variety of civil legal issues.” While the website is still currently in its development phase, Baca said that CLS “will be working to identify 2-5 issue areas to start and will collaborate with the Colorado Access to Justice Commission and [its] own attorneys to provide up-to-date information.”
The website will be available to all Coloradans who need legal information, and Baca hopes the “accessible information will be a resource particularly for unrepresented low-income and older Coloradans, giving them as much information as possible.”
Judging success in the courtroom is often based on a tangible result or judgment, but proving success based on information provided can be a bit more nebulous. Baca said success will be measured in a variety of ways, “including how many visitors use the site and spend time viewing materials.”
“If even a few Coloradans are able to use the information on the site to protect themselves and their rights, I will consider the project a success,” noted Baca.