DENVER, CO (April 27, 2023) — The Colorado Access to Justice Commission (Commission) today released a Strategic Vision Report, outlining its four priority areas for 2023 and 2024. The areas of focus include expanding legal services in underserved rural areas, developing a statewide online legal help portal, increasing funding for legal aid and the Commission, and increasing public awareness about the need for and urgency of efforts to address the justice gap. These priorities emerged from a robust strategic planning process informed by the results of the Commission’s Listen & Learn Tour.
The Commission has been in existence since 2003, though it officially became a nonprofit organization in 2021 after hiring its first-ever staff, Executive Director Elisa Overall. Describing the Commission’s work, Overall says “the Commission convenes leaders from various sectors—like the courts, the private bar, the legal aid community, and state government—to develop and implement scaled solutions to the justice needs of Coloradans.” Solutions have included helping establish the widespread availability of court-based assistance for people without lawyers, expanding pro bono opportunities for lawyers to provide free help, and increasing funding for legal aid.
In 2021 the Commission embarked on a Listen & Learn Tour seeking to better understand the challenges Coloradans face in resolving their civil legal problems. It hosted 41 listening sessions and met with more than 500 constituents from across the state. Assessing the justice needs of Coloradans is one core function of the Commission—a nonprofit whose mission is to expand access, quality, and fairness in the justice system for all Coloradans.
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart explains “individuals and families regularly deal with important legal matters whose outcomes can have life-altering, and profoundly destabilizing, consequences. These matters involve child custody, divorce, home eviction, protection from domestic violence, and access to essential government benefits, among other things. The Commission’s listening tour revealed that a broad swath of Coloradans encounter significant and sometimes insurmountable barriers when trying to resolve civil legal problems such as these.”
The Commission has built on this learning—about both the barriers that exist and where improvements are possible—and developed a set of four key initiatives to guide its work over the next few years. Remote court proceedings are among the key strategies the Commission is pursuing to improve access to justice in underserved rural areas of Colorado. In December 2022 the Commission issued a Remote Court Proceedings report on the opportunities and challenges of virtual court proceedings on access to justice in Colorado based on nationwide data. The report urges the Colorado Supreme Court to adopt a statewide policy to ensure widespread uniformity in access to remote participation during court proceedings. Chief Justice Boatright subsequently created a working group toward these ends and put forth a draft Virtual Proceedings Policy on February 28, 2023. The Commission issued comments on the draft and looks forward to continuing to work in support of remote access.
Additional projects include the Commission’s plans to develop a statewide online legal information portal, envisioned as the “go to” site for effectively connecting people who need legal help with the appropriate legal resources like forms, instructional guides and roadmaps, and referrals to lawyers or legal aid organizations. Commissioner Jason M. Lynch, who is leading the project, explains “when people have a problem, the first place they go to learn about it is online. We hope to organize and consolidate the legal information available to Coloradans in a way that is easy to use and understand, and to help people quickly reach the legal help they need.”
The Report also shows the Commission remains laser focused on cultivating new sources of funding for legal aid. The Commission’s past efforts have helped unlock caches of legal aid funds like the state general funds for Eviction Legal Defense ($1.1M in 2023) and Family Violence Justice ($2.1M in 2023). Still, half of those eligible for legal aid must be turned away due to lack of resources. The Report notes that Colorado has a total of just 0.66 legal aid attorneys for every 10,000 eligible residents, second-to-last among western states.
Still, the Strategic Vision Report presents a robust vision for the future, describing access as fundamental to a thriving Colorado. As Overall notes, “Access to justice is in our Bill of Rights in Colorado. Our Commission’s job is to push forward until that is the reality for every Coloradan.”