Too much money for a public defender, not enough for a private lawyer

In recent access-to-justice news, there is the far-too-common story about a man who makes too much money to be appointed a public defender, but doesn’t have enough resources to hire a private lawyer. 

Andres Cruz Stevens is a seasonal worker in the affluent Aspen area. He was about to plead guilty to several felony auto theft charges when it became clear to him that doing so could impact his immigration status. In this case, the presiding judge stopped Cruz Stevens and alerted him to possible immigration ramifications before he entered his plea. 

In exploring the hurdles low-income to moderate-income individuals face when seeking legal services, the Aspen Daily News spoke with Ryan Kalamaya, a partner in Kalamaya Goscha and on the board of Alpine Legal Services. Kalamaya notes that his firm takes on pro bono cases and that it posts its rates on its website, something that’s so far fairly uncommon. Yet the retainers are so steep that they would likely deter a paycheck-to-paycheck client. The story notes that Alpine Legal Services attempts to keep a current list of lawyers willing to work on a sliding scale. It’s too bad attorneys aren’t ready to share their willingness to take such cases. At Kalamaya Goscha, the firm does make it clear that payment plans are possible. 

Nonlawyer navigators are working to help pro-se litigants

As the Alpine Daily News points out, many people either can’t find affordable legal services or don’t know how. So they opt to go it alone, in both criminal and civil proceedings. 

One way these self-represented litigants (SRL) are finding help is with guidance from nonlawyer “navigators.” In her report, “Nonlawyer Navigators in State Courts: An Emerging Consensus,” Georgetown Law Professor Mary McClymont cites a stat that more than 30 million people a year lack legal representation in state courts. 

That’s an overwhelming number. Courts aren’t equipped to handle matters from people untrained in the legal process. 

Volunteer lawyers can’t close that gap alone. “Even if every licensed attorney in the country logged 180 pro bono hours, each household with a legal problem would receive just one hour of assistance, legal services experts estimate,” Law360 reports.

The solutions to address this access-to-justice crisis will need to be comprehensive in approach, from technology adoption to structural changes in the justice system.

Waiting is not an option. That’s why many jurisdictions have developed or are experimenting with court navigator programs. McClymont found 23 programs at 80 locations in 15 states and the District of Columbia. She also concluded that these programs “demonstrate that well-trained and appropriately supervised navigators can perform a wide array of tasks. The navigators help from the basics of literally navigating the court to getting practical information, source referrals, and paperwork completion assistance. 

Illinois JusticeCorps fellows at swearing-in ceremony.

One program celebrated its navigators this week, the Illinois JusticeCorps, which works with AmeriCorps to place fellows to help with court navigation throughout the state. The program, according to the Joliet Herald News, has expanded to 13 courthouses in 10 counties across the state in large part because of a collaboration with the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, the Serve Illinois Commission, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.