Giving Thought: A ‘Night at the Bar’ seeks to provide justice for all
Most of us have needed the services of a lawyer at least once, and they’re not cheap. So what happens when you need legal help but can’t afford it?
Alpine Legal Services is located in Glenwood Springs, serving people from Aspen to Parachute. It exists to provide legal help for those without the means to pay for a lawyer and, not surprisingly, the organization has no shortage of work. To help meet this demand, Executive Director Kimberly Gent, a lawyer herself, has developed several programs where members of the private bar donate their professional skills to assist community members.
Aspen Community Foundation: Tell us about the demand for Alpine Legal Services in the region.
Kimberly Gent: Each year we serve about 1,500 people, often in collaboration with other agencies — adult protective services, child protective services or family resource centers. Each month we receive more than 300 calls for assistance, and it’s hard to meet that demand with a staff of two full-time attorneys. Increasing our accessibility without increasing our staff is our biggest challenge. We’ve recently refined a couple of programs to help with that issue.
We have changed and improved our Thursday Night Bar, which was an opportunity for people who need legal help to come meet with attorneys free of charge. We are now calling it a “Night at the Bar,” and it’s on Wednesdays. On the first Wednesday of every month, private attorneys will volunteer their time to answer questions from the community.
We had our first sessions in July in Aspen and Glenwood Springs. This month we will host one in Rifle. Our plan is to alternate months between Aspen/Glenwood and Basalt/Rifle, and have the meetings from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the public libraries in each of those communities. We will have at least three attorneys with various legal specialties, so if members of the public have questions in a certain subject area, they may call our office at 970-945-8858 and pre-register to speak with an attorney. For more information, check the newspaper, look for fliers in your town or go to alpinelegalservices.org.
ACF: Are you focused on certain client groups?
KG: Yes, seniors. We have developed a new event with private attorneys and senior service agencies in the valley called Senior Law Day. Last year we hosted our first Senior Law Day at the El Jebel Community Center where more than 140 people attended, necessitating a larger venue. This year our Senior Law Day will be held Oct. 19 at Basalt Middle School, with a keynote speaker, attorneys and other professionals providing information for both seniors and their caregivers. Presentations will cover topics such as fraud and identity theft, guardianship, wills and estates, and more. Aside from the presentations in the main venue, we will also offer one-on-one consultations with attorneys who specialize in elder law. Again, people can call our office beforehand to schedule an appointment with an attorney.
We also focus on families. The most recent statistics show that 90 percent of all divorces are filed without an attorney. That’s really caused a backlog in our court system and it’s increased the demand for our services. So, we’re planning a Family Law Resource Day in October, and anyone who is going through a divorce but doesn’t have an attorney can arrange to meet with one to answer legal questions. We will also have free parenting classes and free mediations for anyone who wants to participate. As in past years, we are hoping to have a judge available so, if a couple has reached an agreement through mediation, they can go before the judge right there and finalize their divorce.
ACF: You’ve recently relocated one of your offices, correct?
KG: Yes, we’ve moved our office in Aspen from the Health and Human Services Building, near the hospital, to the lower level of the Pitkin County Courthouse. We’re excited because it’s a central location and a better fit for our clients and our office.
Since one of our goals is to be accessible to all residents from Aspen to Parachute, we have regular intake hours in Aspen and Glenwood, and intake in Rifle once per week. In an effort to reach the other communities in Western Garfield County, we also have a once-per-month “remote intake” in Parachute and Silt. People in those communities can meet with our paralegal and then speak directly with an attorney via video-conferencing to get their questions answered. Providing access to justice is central to our mission.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.