Family law day provides free legal advice |

Family law day provides free legal advice

Becky Gray, center, and Ashley Burgermeister help a man get his case in order during Family Law Day at the Eagle County Justice Center. It's for people representing themselves in domestic relations cases.
Randy Wyrick| |

For more help

For more information, contact Family Court Facilitator Laurie Mactavish at 970-328-8566.

For Colorado Legal Services Northwest Colorado Legal Services Project, call 1-800-521-6968 or go to

EAGLE — The wheels of justice rarely roll in a straight line, which is why you need help before you end up with tire tracks up your back.

That’s the thought behind Rural Resources for Couples and Families in the Court Process Family Law Day on Feb. 19.

That, and this:

“If you’re charged with a crime, you’re appointed a public defender. If you’re embroiled in a civil action, you’re on your own. You’re making your way through the system by yourself,” said attorney Chris Tomchuck, who was helping people find their way.

“It’s the children we’re doing this for. They’ll come through this healthier and happier.”Laurie MactavishThe Fifth Judicial District’s family court facilitator

The session rolls around every few months, and it’s for people representing themselves in domestic relations cases — divorce, child custody — that sort of thing.

During Family Law Day, free legal help is available for people representing themselves in domestic relations cases.

The required parenting class is available, and it’s free, as are mediation services.

Attorneys are available to assist with legal questions, and Spanish interpreters are around.

First of its kind

As far as anyone can tell, this is the first of its kind in Colorado and maybe the U.S., said District Judge Paul Dunkelman.

Laurie Mactavish, the Fifth Judicial District’s family court facilitator, listened to a presentation about the University of Denver’s privately funded program. DU law students mediate things like divorce cases, guiding people to solutions outside the courts.

Mactavish asked herself, “Why not in rural courts?” Then she asked some other people, who liked the idea.

And then they stopped asking and did it.

Licensed attorneys and mediators help people help themselves by providing free legal advice.

They did one in August and were stunned at the turnout.

“Thirty-three percent of all the self-represented cases came,” Mactavish said.

Several reached a conclusion. Last week, Dunkelman had ruled on five cases by 5 p.m. and still had an hour to go. At the first one last August, he ruled on six cases, a large number for one day.

“People can be done,” Dunkelman said. “They can make decisions, get some closure and take control of their lives.”

Know what to do

On a frighteningly regular basis, people stand in a courtroom with no idea how the system works.

“When you get in front of a judge, chances are you have no idea what’s going on, so the judge has no idea what to do,” Tomchuck said.

This can help judges and unjam an already overwhelmed legal system, Tomchuck said.

There were the two people seeking a divorce with all the standard baggage — children, assets, debts, property … all the stuff.

Dunkelman asked them to present their case, and their faces went completely blank. The judge made a ruling and when he was finished, the now-ex wife finally found her voice, asking, “When do I get my day in court?” That was it, of course, so now they’ve been back to his court three times trying to get him to change the terms.

It’s about the children

It’s mostly about the children, Mactavish said. When children are happy, they’re cared for by loving parents who have moved ahead with their lives. When children are miserable, parents are usually surly and lash out — often at the children.

“It’s the children we’re doing this for,” Mactavish said. “They’ll come through this healthier and happier.”

During last week’s session, most of the people who wandered into the Eagle County Justice Center had that Bambi-staring-down-an-oncoming-Peterbilt look about them.

One smiling young couple strolled hand-in-hand as they were leaving. They weren’t smiling when they walked in.

Another man needed help lining up the process for divorce and child custody, including the required parenting classes. He got both.

Free legal advice

Lee Ann Martinez is a coordinator with Colorado Legal Services, covering Eagle and Lake counties. Her phone can get real busy.

She handles only civil cases, no criminal cases. That’s what the public defender is for, she said.

Some people need a guide, and that can be tough to come by, especially if you can’t afford a private attorney.

Some people also want a quick remedy. The legal system is thorough, not quick. The wheels of justice turn slowly.

People are sometimes upset and the attorney has to remind them to remain calm and mind their manners when they’re in court.

“People representing themselves in civil matters need to understand how important it is to talk with each other civilly,” Martinez said. “If they can’t come to an agreement, a decision, the judge will decide for them.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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