Agency helps poor with legal aid

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Victims of domestic violence often feel trapped and powerless to help themselves or their children.

Not being able to afford legal assistance can compound that feeling into a brutal and harsh reality that some victims may not be able to escape.

Northwest Colorado Legal Services provides hope to such victims. The Hayden-based organization offers legal services and advice to low-income residents in Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Grand and Jackson counties.

About 90 percent of their cases involve domestic violence.

"There's certainly people that need legal representation that just can't afford it," said Cheryl Hardy-Moore, a Steamboat Springs attorney who assists NWCLS clients on a pro bono basis. "The ones I tend to get involved with are pretty ugly cases that really need attorneys. Otherwise, things may not go so well for those people or their children."

Hayden is part of a four-office project assisting residents in 11 Northwest Colorado counties since 1980. There are 15 offices statewide that serve under the parent organization Colorado Legal Services in Denver.

Larger offices have attorneys on staff to help with clients. Smaller offices in rural areas rely on lawyers such as Hardy-Moore to handle civil cases, give written advice or staff "Ask a Lawyer Night" clinics.

The organization only helps with civil matters including divorce, child custody and housing issues.

Residents must have "very low" incomes relative to Federal Poverty Guidelines to receive legal advice or representation, said paralegal Sherri Ferree, who coordinates the Hayden office.

She asked that exact income qualifications not be printed to prevent unqualified individuals from taking advantage of the system.

The organization further prioritizes applications according to the severity of the situations.

"We need to reserve our funds for those who can't get legal services anywhere else," Ferree said.

Last year, the organization helped about 285 people in Routt County with various services. Of those, about 20 clients qualified for legal representation or written advice.

There are some exceptions to the qualifications. NWCLS will provide free legal advice for most senior citizens regardless of income. It also may help residents who face dangerous situations but may fall just outside of the organization's income rules.

"We always make sure to try and find a way to serve when domestic violence is involved," she said.

NWCLS will refer non-qualified residents to attorneys or other legal resources. The advice clinics, held bi-monthly in each county, are geared toward low-income residents but also help people in other income brackets, Ferree said.

A wealth of information about many legal matters also is available on the organization's Web site, www.coloradolegalservices.org.

"It's an excellent Web site for anybody that just has questions," she said.

Local libraries carry copies of the NWCLS Legal Aid book, which provides similar information helpful.

With half of the organization's funding coming from federal grants, NWCLS relies heavily on the financial support of organizations such as United Way of Routt and Moffat counties and other organizations, Ferree said.

"We couldn't do it without their help," she said.

The willingness of local attorneys to volunteer their time to help residents also is essential to NWCLS.

About 25 lawyers in Routt and Moffat counties help through the organization's various services. They are paid between $40 and $50 an hour for their time.

Last year, attorneys in both counties collectively donated about $34,000 in time and fees, Ferree said.

Some attorneys, like Wayne Westphale of Steamboat Springs, said they simply want to help those who have no other choice but to face the courts themselves.

"I feel like everybody needs to have available the opportunity of assistance in the legal system," he said. "People representing themselves often are at a disadvantage, and I don't like to see that happen."

Although courts have gone a long way to help people who don't have representation, "there are those cases where one party is clearly outgunned by a spouse ... where they need legal services and doing it by themselves would not be in their best interests," Hardy-Moore said.

"It's to level the playing field."

Applications for NWCLS are available at local libraries and may be sent to P.O. Box 1555 Hayden, CO 81639 or dropped off at the organization's office in the basement of the old hospital building on South Walnut Street.

For more information about the NWCLS or for referrals to other legal resources, call 276-2161 or 1-800-521-6968.

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