Why legal aid matters |  opinion
4 mins read

Why legal aid matters | opinion


When I speak to civic groups about Alpine Legal Services, I’m surprised how many people have heard of us but aren’t sure what we do.

People also tell me they don’t realize the right to legal representation applies mostly to criminal cases. They didn’t know that those facing a life-altering civil legal matter — an eviction, a protection order from abuse and violence, a custody case, an emergency guardianship — are most often not entitled to an attorney. That’s where civil legal aid comes in. That’s what we do.

Alpine Legal Services has been around in one form or another since 1987. A group of lawyers saw the need to uphold justice for people who had strong cases but didn’t know how to present them and couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. They saw people walking away from our justice system feeling powerless and resentful. They realized that if you want to live in a safe and stable community, you can’t have people thinking our system of justice is not for them. They knew a true system of justice required not only fair and impartial judges, but advocates on both sides, to get to the truth and uphold the law, regardless of someone’s ability to pay a lawyer, or social status.

Right now, you can think of Alpine Legal Services as an emergency room for legal aid. We get more requests for aid than we can handle, so our necessary and calculated response is to triage the most critical civil legal aid cases and help get people stabilized. We are short-staffed (spoiler alert: legal aid attorneys who can afford to live in our area are not easy to come by), so our main criteria for meeting with a client at this time is whether someone is at risk of imminent physical or emotional harm.

Maybe someone is a victim of stalking, but they don’t want to press criminal charges. Maybe a custody order needs to be changed while a parent is in recovery. Maybe a family is about to be evicted and is at risk of being homeless. We know every time we help someone resolve a stressful and life-changing legal matter, we are upholding confidence in the rule of law.

I also get asked what people can do to help us. If you want to give something other than a financial donation, we need more peacemakers in our community. Most of the cases we see could have been resolved much earlier, before a costly crisis. If you haven’t always been a peacemaker, there are several books, audiobooks and videos on the topic (for all ages), which are available for free through any of our fabulous local libraries. “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg is a great book to start with. We’re also working to bring more mediation services and training to our region. An ounce of conflict prevention is worth a pound of crisis management.

We are passionate about our mission to advance justice in our community and improve lives through legal advocacy, outreach and education. We strongly believe that with each individual we help, we are making our community a better place to live. We are so grateful for the community and individual support that has helped us in this critical work. You can learn more, volunteer pro bono legal services, and support our work at alpinelegalservices.org.

Jennifer Wherry is executive director of Alpine Legal Services.

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