Individuals who have become victims of crime often have myriad legal issues that arise resulting from their victimization. While some of these issues can be addressed through engaging the criminal justice system, survivors often choose to not report, engage or participate in the criminal justice system for a variety of reasons. For many, justice is not defined through the criminal justice system but through achieving stability in their lives after a crime. This stability can often be achieved through civil legal remedies. Through this pathway to stability, survivors can re-define what justice means to them and regain balance in their lives.
However, the legal system is complex and confusing to individuals with little prior exposure to the legal system or those dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event. Additionally, the average cost of a case, such as a dissolution of marriage (divorce), utilizes the traditional retainer and “pay as you go model” which can range drastically and cause financial hardship or debt. For most traditional firms, the two questions they repeatedly tell clients they cannot answer is how much the process will cost and how long it will take.
For survivors of crime, those two questions are paramount in recovery and feelings of safety. As such, the legal community has begun to recognize the importance in access to civil legal services to victims in a language they understand, at a price they can pay and in a time frame they can imagine.
In the summer of 2015, the Civil Legal Services for Crime Victims Statewide Special Project was established as a collaborative special project, funded by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, Office for Victim Programs to address this very issue. The special project is guided by a steering committee of eleven collaborative partners and staffed by a full-time Project Coordinator. The Project aims to create and implement a plan to increase the continuum of services for a variety of civil legal needs of the crime victim resulting from their victimization. The Steering Committee meets monthly to look at creative strategies to increase access to civil legal services for victims statewide. Upon researching successful strategies, the steering committee identified the Lawyers for Victims Program at Project Safeguard as an innovative and effective way to serve survivors.
The Lawyers for Victims Program was started in 2015 to attempt to fill the huge need for attorney representation for crime victims at their permanent protection order hearings. The solution was to develop of program where an advocacy agency contracts with local attorneys to provide representation for a flat fee to qualified victims of crime at no cost to the victim.
Attorney representation in civil matters can make a significant difference for the victim, not just in the outcome of the case, but throughout the entire legal process if the attorney has proper training and expertise. Attorneys involved in the Lawyers for Victims program complete trauma-informed training so that they are better able to guide victims through the complex legal system.
In 2017, the Lawyers for Victims Program expanded and is now operating in five agencies across Colorado, all using the same model of paying contract attorneys a flat fee for limited-scope representation of crime victims in civil matters. Some of the expansion sites have extended representation beyond permanent protection order hearings to other civil legal services including immigration, mediations, and emergency representation for limited issues in family law cases.
The Lawyers for Victims Program is one innovative way that civil legal services are being expanded and made available to crime victims in Colorado. In 2017, over 400 victims were provided with an attorney through this program. Other agencies are being encouraged to apply for funding to set up their own similar programs to provide increased access to attorneys to victims of crime for a variety of civil legal needs.
Without programs such as these, the civil legal system can exclude survivors without means to pay for an attorney, leaving many with no sense of justice for what has been done to them. One of many innovative approaches in serving survivors, the Lawyers for Victims Program is a prime example of a creative solution to fill a pressing need in Colorado.