Proposed program could help Puebloans facing divorce, custody cases
An estimated 80% of Puebloans facing nationwide court hearings do so without an attorney to help them navigate the complicated divorce, custody or child support process.
A renewed initiative overseen by the Colorado Supreme Court would licensed legal paraprofessionalsor paralegals, to practice family law and help those who cannot afford a lawyer.
“With family law, there’s no way to get a public defender like you can in a criminal case, so if you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re on your own,” Wes Hassler said. , of the Hassler law firm in Pueblo. “With a high number of litigants appearing without a lawyer, it slows down the legal process and costs taxpayers money.”
Hassler is one of 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 began in 2014 to enable paralegals to help ease some of the pressure on the court system when it comes to family law cases.
“It started in 2014, but lawyers who practiced family law stood firm because they didn’t want to lose clients. In 2020, the Colorado Supreme Court realized it had to do something,” as the state documented that 75% of family law litigants appeared in court without an attorney.
“The number of pro se or self-represented litigants is actually higher in Pueblo because of our economic situation. I suspect it’s around 80% or more,” Hassler added.
How the program would work
With the program, paralegals will be required to meet licensing and training guidelines, as well as pass an exam. Qualified paraprofessionals can’t provide all the services of an attorney, but they typically have much less student debt and can therefore work for little money, Hassler said.
“I suspect a number of paralegals will want to get into this field because they will earn more money and have the opportunity to open their own office,” he said.
Local residents will benefit from the support of a paralegal who can assist in mediation, draft documents and sit with the client in the courtroom. Paralegals will not be able to interview witnesses but may advise their clients on questions to ask.
Hassler said he hopes there will be less denials this time around from lawyers because he doesn’t think it’s a “lawyer versus non-lawyer issue, but rather a problem of help versus no help at all”.
“These clients are not the same ones who were going to hire a lawyer anyway,” due to the prohibitive cost. Paralegals “will be able to handle cases that do not involve more than $200,000 in marital assets,” he said.
“So many people in our community already have anxiety about legal issues and sometimes it’s extremely difficult to just set foot in a courtroom. It’s in no one’s interest to do it alone, especially with so much at stake,” Hassler said.
If the program goes ahead, it will likely start in 2024. Hassler said his office currently has four attorneys and eight paralegals, so some of those paralegals might choose 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 Zoom meeting from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, August 9 to provide feedback. To join the Zoom meeting, go to zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID 841 2854 9437 and passcode 682899.
Those unable to attend the meeting can submit written comments by September 14, either by mail to the Colorado Supreme Court, 2 E. 14th Ave., Denver, CO 80202, or by email. [email protected] Email comments will be accepted in Word or PDF format as a separate document.
Hassler said another initiative the Access to Justice Commission is tackling is a statewide rule for the use of virtual hearings. State courts began using Webex for virtual hearings early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the use of virtual hearings is left to individual judges.
Many lawyers would like to see Webex used permanently, especially on simple or routine cases, he said.
Hassler has been practicing law in Pueblo for nearly 18 years. He grew up in Florence where he graduated from high school in 1993 before earning a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University Pueblo and a law degree from Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
He said he didn’t mind volunteering his time to serve on the commission because he liked “helping move the industry forward.”