Legal bills another Eagle Co. cost struggle
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY ” Shelly’s husband beat her during her marriage and when she wanted a divorce, she made too much money for a free attorney.
So Shelly, who calls herself well-educated and well-rounded, decided to represent herself when her husband filed for divorce and locked her out of her home, she said.
“I wasn’t aware of my rights: I literally turned over everything,” said Shelly, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
She lost her dog, her home, her antique Christmas ornaments, her baby pictures, and will never get them back, she said.
Like many other victims of domestic violence, though Shelly did not qualify for a free attorney, she also could not afford to get one herself. Typically, only a fraction of victims like Shelly get an attorney through the Eagle County Resource Center, which finds attorneys for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, gives them shelter and helps them through their cases.
Five of 39 families who needed attorneys got one in October, said Deb Baldwin, housing coordinator and advocate for the Resource Center.
“This is a huge problem for us,” Baldwin said.
In Eagle County, a victim must make no more than about $12,000 each year to get a free attorney and no more than $25,000 for a family of four, she said.
With the high cost of living in Eagle County, most victims do not have the money to pay attorney’s fees, she said.
A landlord once tried to evict a stay-at-home mother and her children from their home after her husband was jailed for domestic violence, said John Clune, an attorney who stepped in and got housing for the mother, who could not pay her rent. (Clune declined to elaborate on the case, citing attorney-client privilege.)
“That’s not something the criminal prosecutor or the judge had the ability to deal with,” Clune said.
“That’s the kind of situation where victims need attorneys to intervene and deal with the landlord,” he said.
The majority of Clune’s clients who come to his Victim Justice Initiative offices in Edwards and Boulder are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. He is one of two attorneys who regularly handle those cases in the Vail Valley and he said he has to turn away about half of the people who ask him for representation.
Clune represents a third of his clients for free, he said.
“It’s still a small minority of lawyers who do this kind of work,” he said.
Victims need a private attorney when their cases are being prosecuted, said Inga Causey, the other local attorney who regularly handles these kinds of cases.
Because public prosecutors focus mostly on prosecuting defendants, private attorneys must teach victims how to successfully testify, make sure victims can keep their jobs and homes during legal proceedings and that those convicted of crimes pay victims’ restitution, such as medical bills, Clune and Causey said.
“All of those things can fall through the cracks with just a prosecutor and no victim representation,” Causey said.
Unlike private attorneys, prosecutors cannot handle disputes between victims and landlords and employers.
But prosecutors and victim’s advocates protect victims’ rights by spending “hours and hours” preparing them to testify during trials, Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said. Prosecutors always seek restitution when the law calls for it, he said.
“A lot of what (Causey and Clune) are saying is covered by the D.A.’s Office and we don’t cost the victim anything,” Hurlbert said.
Penelope’s husband was arrested for allegedly molesting her daughter for almost two years. Penelope, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, found out about the alleged abuse this year, she said.
“He was very abusive verbally and physically,” Penelope said about her husband. “I never expected something like that was happening.”
Penelope tried to get free legal representation, but was turned away because she made too much money. Penelope did not have enough money for an attorney, so Causey volunteered to help her.
“I feel secure and I know I’m going to be very well-represented ” and my children, to get justice to them.”
About 40 attorneys in Colorado represent victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said Kathleen Schoen, the Colorado Bar Association’s staffer for the Access to Justice Initiative.
Formed in 2003, the Access to Justice Initiative is a group of lawyers, judges and others trying to get funding to hire more lawyers to help crime victims because federal funding for those kinds of lawyers has been cut, Schoen said.
A local group of lawyers, judges and victims’ services officials met earlier this week in Breckenridge to discuss the problem in Eagle, Lake, Summit and Clear Creek counties.
The problem exists nationwide, attorneys said.
Less than one in five people who need an attorney for a civil case actually get one in the United States, according to a 2005 report from the Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency that provides legal representation to poor people.
“We’ve forgotten an element of our justice system, and that’s the rights of the victim and being able to preserve those rights,” Causey said.
Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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