Technology, Language and Fees Among Barriers to Civil Justice System, Report Says

Fees, language barriers and technology deserts are some of the biggest obstacles Coloradans face in accessing the civil justice system, according to a new report from the Colorado Access to Justice Commission.

The independent commission conducted a virtual listening tour of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts to identify challenges people have when dealing with the court system. The ATJC held 41 “listen and learn” sessions attended by more than 500 people. Participants included judges, court staff, probation officers, attorneys, state legislators, representatives of nonprofits, educators, mental and behavioral health specialists and librarians.

Reaching beyond the legal industry for feedback provided a fuller view of access to justice problems. “When you broaden the audience or the people who you’re seeking input from to people who have nothing to do with the courts, you find all the blind spots,” said ATJC Executive Director Elisa “Emo” Overall.

One of the blind spots brought into focus during the sessions is the lack of resources in languages other than English, according to Overall. The report notes that the Judicial Department’s website is almost entirely in English, as are most self-help materials, and most forms are only available in English or Spanish. Although the Judicial Department has a translation service for forms, they must still be completed in English.

According to the report, courtroom interpreters are generally available, but litigants with limited English often want interpreters to explain or advise on legal issues, which they are unable to do. Participants also noted that municipal courts lack language access services. The commission found there are very few Spanish-speaking lawyers in the state, especially in rural areas, and even fewer who speak less common languages.

“Another thing that was surprising, at least to a lot of the judicial officers that participated, was how often court fees were brought up as prohibitive,” Overall said. For example, it costs $85 to file a protection order. “That’s a lot of money for a lot of people,” she added.

While fee waivers are available in some cases, the waiver process is confusing and lacks uniformity, according to the report. “One attorney described confronting dramatically different fee waiver eligibility requirements for nearly every judicial district and county in the Denver Metro Area,” the report states. “She further described sending clients into courthouses with all of the required forms and paperwork only to learn later that they were denied fee waivers due to a failure to present something not previously required nor listed on the court’s webpage.”

In rural Colorado, there are deserts. “There are resource deserts that are also legal deserts that are also technology deserts,” Overall said. A person living in these areas only has a handful of attorneys to choose from, she said, and many of them won’t be able to take the case due to conflicts of interest or because they work for the government.

The lack of rural legal services is compounded in “digital deserts” where high-speed internet is unavailable. According to Overall, participants in one southern Colorado county reported that when people had to appear in virtual court, they drove to the parking lot at the local school because it was the only place with WiFi access. “So even the people who were participating in our virtual tour had trouble accessing our virtual meetings because broadband is so spotty,” she said.

Technology barriers to the civil justice system stretch beyond the rural digital deserts. Overall said she was surprised to learn that “even just expecting someone to have a smartphone is a bridge too far.” “The technological divide very much cuts both ways,” she said, adding that while technology has been an “enormous agent for access,” those left on the other side because they don’t have a smartphone or lack computer literacy “really cannot be forgotten.”

According to the report, people with disabilities and limited English proficiency also face technology barriers. Deaf and blind advocates described WebEx, which Colorado courts use for virtual court appearances, as “unusable,” according to the report, and an interpreter in southwest Colorado told the commission that the platform is ill-suited for simultaneous interpretation in different languages.

Another access to justice challenge is distrust and fear of the system. One judge quoted in the report said self-represented litigants “view the court as an arm of the haves, shaking down the have-nots.” Listening tour participants noted that courthouses are intimidating for most people, especially those experiencing homelessness, mental health and addiction issues, according to the report. The pandemic has worsened public confidence in the judicial system, the report said, as courts have reduced hours and decreased customer service.

Participants also expressed frustration with the complexity of the legal system and court procedures. “The entire process is confusing and not understandable. The statutes are unreadable, and the forms are difficult to understand,” Becky Casey, a Fremont County self-represented litigant coordinator and family court facilitator, told the commission. Several other participants mentioned the complexity and legalese of court forms and documents as a barrier, according to the report, and one Arapahoe County judge recommended that forms be written in plain language.

In addition to identifying challenges, the report provides recommendations to “help bridge the civil justice gap.” The state legislature should increase funding for civil legal aid and prioritize access to justice legislation, according to the report, while law schools should encourage students and recent graduates to practice in rural Colorado and do pro bono work. The Judicial Department should continue to make remote appearances available and expand technology to support them, the report says. The report also recommends the judicial branch offer training for judges and judicial staff on how to serve people experiencing trauma, and Overall said the commission plans to develop trauma training opportunities for the courts.

The report urged attorneys to support access to justice by offering unbundled, low bono and sliding scale services. They can also serve on local access to justice committees, which are supported by the ATJC and focus on regionally tailored solutions to access to justice problems. The report also encourages lawyers to fulfill the Colorado Supreme Court’s Pro Bono Recognition Program pledge to dedicate 50 hours or more to pro bono services each year. 

“Attorneys need to be part of that army,” Overall said. “And they, in doing so, will be converted into advocates pretty quickly, because what attorneys realize when they start becoming involved in pro bono work is that it’s the most fulfilling part of their week.”

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