An estimated 80% of Puebloans facing domestic-related court hearings do so without an attorney to help navigate the complicated process of divorce, child custody or child support cases.
A renewed initiative overseen by the Colorado Supreme Court would allow for licensed legal paraprofessionals, or paralegals, to practice family law and help those who cannot afford an attorney.
“With family law there is no opportunity to get a public defender like you can in a criminal case, so if you cannot afford a lawyer, you are on your own,” said Wes Hassler, of Hassler Law Firm in Pueblo. “With a high number of litigants appearing without attorneys it slows the judicial process and costs taxpayers money.”
Hassler is among 20 Colorado attorneys who make up the Colorado Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission. Hassler represents southern Colorado.
The commission is helping renew an effort that started in 2014 to allow paralegals to help alleviate some of the strain on the court system when it comes to family law cases.
“It initially started in 2014, but attorneys that practiced family law gave hard pushback because they didn’t want to lose clients. In 2020, the Colorado Supreme Court realized they needed to do something,” as the state documented 75% of family law litigants appeared in court without an attorney.
“The number of per se or without-attorney litigants is actually higher in Pueblo because of our economic situation. I suspect it is around 80% or more,” Hassler added.
How the program would work
With the program, paralegals will have to meet license and training guidelines as well as pass an exam. Qualified paraprofessionals cannot provide all the services of a lawyer, but also typically will have much less education debt and can therefore work for a smaller fee, Hassler said.
“I suspect quite a few paralegals will want to get into this area because they will make more money and have the ability to open their own office,” he said.
Local residents will benefit from the support of a paralegal who can participate in mediation, draft documents and sit with the client in the courtroom. The paralegals won’t be able to question witnesses but can advise their clients on questions to ask.
Hassler said he is hoping there will be less pushback this time from attorneys because he does not believe it is a “lawyer versus non-lawyer issue, but rather a help versus no help at all issue.”
“These clients are not the same as those who were going to hire a lawyer anyway,” due to the prohibitive cost. The paralegals, “will be able to handle cases that do not involve more than $200,000 in marital assets,” he said.
“So many in our community already have anxiety dealing with legal matters and sometimes just stepping foot in a courtroom is extremely difficult. It’s not in anyone’s interest to do this alone, especially with so much at stake,” Hassler said.
If the program goes forward, it likely will start in 2024. Hassler said his office currently has four attorneys and eight paralegals, so some of those paralegals could opt to try the new program.
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How you can comment on the proposal
Puebloans can weigh in on the proposed program by attending a noon to 1 pm Zoom meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 9 to provide comments. To join the Zoom meeting, go to Zoom.us/join and enter the meeting ID number 841 2854 9437 and passcode 682899.
Those who cannot attend the meeting can submit written comments by Sept. 14, either via mail to the Colorado Supreme Court, 2 E. 14th Ave., Denver, CO 80202, or email [email protected]. Email comments will be accepted in Word or PDF format attached as a separate document.
Hassler said another initiative the Access to Justice Commission is addressing is a statewide rule for the use of virtual hearings. The state courts began using Webex for virtual hearings during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic but now the use of virtual hearings is left up to each individual judge.
Many attorneys would like to see Webex used on a permanent basis, especially during simple or routine matters, he said.
Hassler has been practicing law in Pueblo for nearly 18 years. He grew up in Florence where he graduated high school in 1993 before getting a bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University Pueblo and a law degree at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
He said he doesn’t mind volunteering his time to serve on the commission because he loves “to help move the industry forward.”
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Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business news. You can be reached by email at [email protected] or via Twitter at twitter.com/tracywumps.
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