Colorado Establishes First General Legal Aid Fund in State History

On June 3, Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 24-1286 into law, creating Colorado’s first general fund for legal aid. The bill creates the Equal Justice Authority, which will administer the funds to legal aid organizations across the state. 

The main change to the bill from its introduction to its passing was its funding mechanism, which drew opposition in committee hearings. Emo Overall, the executive director of the Colorado Access to Justice Commission, said the amendment process was a little frustrating, but the CAJC was pleased with the way the bill looked in the end. 

“The main amendment was moving the dollar amount from $20 in all civil cases, regardless of whether they were in the county court or the district court, and changing that to $30 in district court and $10 in county court,” said Overall. “And really the driving factor behind that was the debt collectors, the creditors, whose cases are almost entirely seen in county court.” 

Matt Baca, the executive director of Colorado Legal Services, said that despite the changes, he didn’t think it would affect the dollars generated by the new fee in a meaningful way. 

“The upshot, still, is that we believe it will be about $2 million a year for legal aid in Colorado, which is enormous,” said Baca. “It’s the first time in Colorado’s history that there will be general operating funding for legal aid providers in the state who are representing folks in what may be the most difficult moment of their life.”

While Baca was thrilled with the outcome, he added that more work was still left to be done in closing the state’s legal aid gap. 

“Our estimate is that there’s a funding shortfall of $95 million for legal aid in Colorado,” said Baca. “And so if you think about this as being a $2 million increase in funding, there’s still that $93 million shortfall for legal aid in Colorado. And that’s why I hope this is the beginning and not the end of our efforts to find other sources of revenue to make sure that someday legal aid can be fully funded.” 

But those dollars will still mean a lot for legal aid in Colorado. “The dollars will mean that we are able to expand our services and help more Coloradans who are vulnerable or are low income,” said Baca. 

Some examples of those services Baca mentioned were helping people get identification documents or people who are working to escape trafficking. 

“These dollars, we will use to put into that work, and over time, we hope to expand that work and to be doing more of it,” said Baca. 

Overall noted that the money being put into a general fund for legal aid, rather than being earmarked to specific causes, was a really meaningful part of the bill. 

“Before we had really restrictive buckets, just three buckets, where state funding would go for legal aid, that’s eviction, family violence and immigration,” said Overall. “Now these funds can be used to focus on some of the more upstream legal services that can keep people from getting into those more serious situations.” 

The lack of restrictions will also make the fund more flexible and able to adapt to the legal needs of Coloradans. 

“Adapting to needs year by year will be really important,” said Overall. “What’s the most burning topic today may not even make it onto the list in a decade.” 

By solving these cases on the civil side, Baca told Law Week that the ripple effect was almost impossible to overstate. 

“First you have the effect of what representing somebody does for an individual, for their family, and that is that, win or lose, we know that we’re providing dignity for folks,” said Baca. “But we hope we win, and we try really hard to win, and in those instances, we’re able to provide justice for folks that they may not have otherwise been able to receive.” 

In addition to providing dignity to individuals who might not have had representation otherwise, Baca added there was a significant social return on investment, to the tune of $6.19 per dollar invested in legal aid, according to a study from CLS. 

“When we help someone get their identification documents so that they can find work and be housed, of course that’s going to be an economic benefit to the community as well,” said Baca. “When you prevent an unfair debt collection, and now the debt collector is on notice that we are out there doing these kinds of cases, they do not bring a particular kind of unfair debt collection. Then that may prevent many others from ever even getting filed.” 

The funds provided will be administered by the new authority set up by the board. 

“The Equal Justice Authority Board is going to be making decisions about who gets how much money, and what the sort of formulas look like in terms of who’s eligible for funds,” said Overall. 

As far as when the fund will begin distributing the money, Overall said that it is likely to take at least a year for the fund to grow robust enough to start distributing. 

“And it will take us all of that time to figure out the administrative mechanisms for the Equal Justice Authority Board to form and come up with its charter, governing documents, rules, etc.,” said Overall. “So it’s going to be a very full year of creating the scaffolding of what this process will look like.”

“But once the scaffolding is there, and once the fund has had a chance to grow, then we should be in business, we hope, in about a year.”

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