Those in the middle often seem to fly under the radar. Middle children feel excluded and ignored, mid-tier athletes are forgotten by the spotlight — and middle income earners are largely overlooked when it comes to economic issues.
Bruce Wiener decided he would change that, at least when it comes to civil legal services. As a lawyer, he realized that the wealthy could afford their choice of the very best lawyers in civil cases and clients below the poverty line have access to free Legal Aid services, but those with middle to lower incomes have a hard time affording a private attorney and are often forced to self-represent.
“There is a huge gap in the legal system because, unlike in criminal cases, there is no constitutional requirement for legal representation in civil cases. The problem exists all over the country as well as in Colorado,” Wiener says. “There is an overwhelming unmet need in the legal system for moderate and lower income individuals and families who need legal help in civil cases.”
In Boulder, 75% of litigants in domestic relations cases do not have an attorney, and in 65% of domestic cases, both sides do not have attorneys. Wiener explains this is not just a problem for middle and lower income people who cannot afford proper representation, it becomes a problem for the courts because it slows down the legal process for everyone when the courts have to spend more time with those who do not have representation.
Wiener, in partnership with lawyer Michelle Haynes, founded Bridge to Justice in 2013, a nonprofit organization that serves middle-income clients along the Front Range. Since then, they have represented an average of 275 clients per year and their attorneys appear in court every week. The majority of their civil cases are in the area of family law, including divorces and child custody, although they also work on landlord-tenant disputes and consumer protection. Specifically, Bridge to Justice focuses on post-decree litigation that occurs after the granting of a divorce, legal separation, or child custody, for example, because these cases tend to be complicated and ongoing. They can also be very expensive, highly emotional, and ripe for abuse if one party has an attorney and the other does not.
For those who qualify for Bridge to Justice services, fees are significantly discounted: only $95 for the out of court hourly rate and $120 for the in court hourly rate. Those rates are about one-third less than standard attorney fees. Bridge to Justice is able to keep those rates low, thanks to an organic business model based around referrals and experience.
“We do not rely on an expensive marketing budget, and our costs for recruiting and training are kept low because we hire seasoned lawyers, rather than training young lawyers,” Wiener says.
With only three full-time attorneys and a handful of law student volunteers, Wiener’s organization is small and local right now, but he foresees Bridge to Justice expanding out of Boulder and the Front Range, into the rest of Colorado and the nation.
Boulder’s high cost of living means it is the perfect place for Bridge to Justice to be established, but Wiener thinks there needs to be a new platform for civil law.
“The legal system is created by lawyers, for lawyers and it is very difficult for those with no legal background to successfully understand and navigate it,” Wiener remarks. “Moreover, attorneys have a monopoly on the provision of legal services. The legal profession is in flux and the model is not working.”
Bridge to Justice has income and asset requirements based on HUD guidelines and serve individuals with incomes in the range of $45,000 and households at $65,000. If you meet these guidelines and need legal help, visit their website and apply.