Ten years ago, a Colorado attorney realized that if medical advice could be given virtually, there’s no reason legal advice couldn't either.
Jefferson County has had a free legal clinic out of Belmar and Evergreen libraries for eight years, with almost 200 people helped last year alone — and the program isn’t just in Jeffco.
“The principal purpose of the Virtual Pro Se Clinic program is to provide help to people that have no lawyer. That’s the whole thing. We’re not interested in providing second opinions for people who can afford an attorney,” the founder, volunteer coordinator and Colorado attorney Ric Morgan told Colorado Community Media.
According to a Colorado Courts report, about 200,000 parties did not have attorney representation in court — not including Denver county cases. “And it wasn’t because they didn’t want one, it’s because they couldn’t afford one,” Morgan said.
The program started as a pilot in 2013 to see whether the concept could work.
“The areas we happened to choose to do those initial clinics, there was just nothing else available,” Morgan said. These were in rural areas, like near the Utah state line and Oklahoma state line, and were a success, according to Morgan: “The public response, and the response from the courts and the libraries, was just terrific.”
Patrick Dunn, a staff member at Belmar Public Library and the point-person for the program there, praised the program.
“Libraries are kind of treated like a one-stop, get a lot of things done, for a lot of people. The fact that they can do that on top of talking to a lawyer about their issues is very helpful,” he said.
The issues that people ask about at the clinics in Jeffco, according to an annual report from Morgan, are split mainly between domestic — such as marriage and parental responsibility — and civil — like evictions, small claims, collections, labor and bankruptcy issues. The remaining cases, about 20%, were property and probate issues.
According to Morgan, courts are happy about the program as well.
“Frankly, the people appearing in front of the court have a better, more thorough understanding of what the courts can do,” he said. This benefits the courts, he continued, because people have a better understanding of what to expect, saving time that court staff would normally spend guiding or explaining the process and the court’s capabilities.
As of this year, the program operates in 46 counties, holding 525 clinics across the state last year, helping over 2000 people.
The format of these clinics are Zoom calls set up by the local library to a volunteer attorney with the program. The clinics happen once a month and people have to sign up for a 15-minute slot beforehand.
Morgan said that some people are confused by the small time frame. “It’s not just a simple matter of talking to the attorney for 10 or 15 minutes,” he explained. “What that attorney is doing is pointing that individual to a body of resources that they can then digest at their own rate.”
He references a website he made for the program, checkerboard.co, which has links and flowcharts to help inform people of the processes and paperwork necessary for dozens of different types of cases.
“If someone is prepared for that session, they can get a lot of answered questions,” Dunn said about the timeframe.
When asked how many volunteer attorneys are needed, Morgan said the ideal for 46 clinics would be about 185 — they currently have five.
“It’s a problem we always have with this program,” Morgan said, speaking on retention and recruiting. “The kind of people that support the program are the exact kind of people that keep getting picked up for their dream job.”
One example he gave was Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart, whom he said volunteered with the program until she became a judge in the highest state court.
The goal is to eventually have a clinic in every county, but Morgan said he’s a “baby-steps kind of guy.”
“We’re kind of working our way into some areas, but we’ve certainly got clinics accessible nearby for folks across the state,” he said. He’s happy with their “measured, methodical” growth, adding four or five counties every year.
The help given from the clinic itself “may not be the end of the road of where we need to go in this whole process,” Morgan said. “But it’s lightyears ahead of where we were.”