Local nonprofit seeks to level the legal playing field
January 1, 2013
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – There was the elderly Silt woman who lost her home to foreclosure, then found out that creditors were trying to garnish her Social Security payments, too.
There was the Aspen woman seeking a restraining order and divorce from her husband, who was thwarted by his lawyer at every turn.
And there was the midvalley woman who, intimidated by her husband’s threats, was too terrified to file for divorce at all.
Despite their legal troubles, none of these women could afford private attorneys. They turned for help to the nonprofit Alpine Legal Services (ALS), which has offered free or low cost legal aid in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties for 25 years.
“The legal system was beyond my comprehension,” said PJ Janas of Aspen, who got help from ALS attorneys to secure a restraining order against her ex-husband and negotiate a favorable divorce settlement.
“I was trying to deal with his attorney by myself, and [Alpine] was literally the knight in shining armor, stepping in when I was 10 days from trial,” Janas said.
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In addition to representing hundreds of clients in court every year, ALS offers free legal advice several mornings per week in Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Rifle. Legal advice is also offered one Thursday night per month in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, and the group holds regular legal clinics on subjects ranging from evictions and debts to employment and divorce law.
Jonathan Shamis, a kindly man of 51 who has been the executive director of ALS since 2005, said the group’s caseload has more than doubled in recent years as a result of the economic downturn.
ALS is funded by a long list of municipalities and nonprofits throughout the region, as well as by federal grants. Much of the group’s funding is earmarked to help seniors and victims of domestic violence.
“In many cases, there is no legal protection for the victim while an arrest is ongoing,” Shamis said. “Many people come in here believing that they have no opportunity to feel safe.”
One midvalley woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said this was precisely how she felt upon arriving in Shamis’ office a few months ago. She had suffered verbal and some physical abuse for years, she said, but never contemplated divorce until her son’s teachers learned about the boy’s home life and recommended that she seek protection.
“I was scared I wasn’t going to live through the weekend,” she said of her mindset at the time. After helping her to secure a restraining order and start divorce proceedings, Shamis placed a volunteer attorney on standby to aid her through the rest of the process.
“It’s a service that is truly amazing,” she said. “I might not be alive if it weren’t for that. I might be a statistic.”
In recent years, as the organization’s caseload has increased faster than its funding, Shamis said ALS has placed an emphasis on helping its clients achieve legal self-sufficiency.
“People think of legal aid organizations as free lawyers for poor people,” said Shamis, “but now that everything is online, people can do much more on their own. We work with our clients so that they can be their own advocates. Besides, we couldn’t offer a free attorney to everyone.”
ALS also bucks the “free lawyer” stereotype by using a sliding scale payment system, so clients pay based on their income and circumstances.
“There are huge groups of people who are not indigent, but who still can’t afford an attorney,” said Shamis.
A Silt resident who asked to remain anonymous is one of these. When she came to ALS, the woman had nearly gone broke paying her husband’s medical bills, and had lost her home to foreclosure. She was living on Social Security payments, but one day discovered her bank account empty when a collections agency began garnishing those payments as well.
“Jonathan went after them and was successful,” said the woman. “I found out that benefits like Social Security cannot be touched by collections agencies, and they reimbursed everything they took out of my account. I’m struggling, but at least I’m not bothered by my creditors now.”
According to Shamis, those unfamiliar with the legal system are often unable to tell when the opposing party in their dispute is breaking the rules. In such cases, his attorneys can play a valuable role.
“Many times, it’s a question of whether the other parties are navigating within the bounds of the law,” he said.
Having worked for years in private law practice, Shamis is well acquainted with the legal system. But the drama and trauma he encounters every day in his work for ALS have made him more curious about the workings of the human mind.
“I’m getting my master’s degree in psychology at CU Denver now,” he said.
More information about Alpine Legal Services, including a schedule of clinics and legal advice sessions, can be found at http://www.alpinelegalservices.com.