Bridge to Justice: Leveling the Legal Playing Field

The end of a marriage is a harsh and difficult reality to face, even without considering the legal ramifications. Add in child custody issues, and the need for a lawyer is imminent.

But in 65 percent of domestic relations cases in Boulder County, neither side is represented by counsel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice website, this is an issue across the country: “Despite the number of providers, civil legal aid cannot meet the need for services…more than 50 percent of those seeking help are turned away because of the limited resources available. These statistics describe only those below the poverty line and do not reflect the tens of millions of moderate income Americans who also cannot afford legal help.”

Lawyer Bruce Wiener recognized this as an urgent problem, especially in Boulder, which he says, “…has a great deal of inequality. It has a high cost of living and lack of affordable housing as well as high cost of legal services. It is very difficult to afford a lawyer here.”

So in 2013, he and Michelle Haynes founded Bridge to Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting low- and moderate-income individuals who cannot afford legal representation. They offer heavily discounted services based on income and asset requirements, and their focus is on family law cases. The majority of their cases are in the area of post-decree family law, including divorces and child custody. They also represent clients in landlord-tenant disputes, consumer protection, and small claims money cases.

The U.S. Department of Justice website points out, “Many studies show that people who get legal help, across a range of problems, receive better outcomes than people who do not. For example, in housing cases, a randomized control trial found that 51% of tenants in eviction proceedings without lawyers lost their homes, while only 21% of tenants with lawyers lost possession…”

Justice concept in court library. law attorney court lawyer gavel judge justice legal conception

The critical need for an organization just like this has led to rapid growth for Bridge to Justice. The organization has strong relationships with the City of Boulder, the City of Longmont, Boulder County, CU-Boulder’s law school, Boulder County Legal Services, and local bar and community foundations and domestic violence shelters. Even private lawyers refer clients to Bridge to Justice who need assistance.

In addition, because having representation from lawyers expedites the legal process, the court system has been extremely supportive of Bridge to Justice. 

“These are very consequential cases with huge issues around child custody and child support, or housing and eviction,” Wiener said. “These can be very expensive cases over the long-term because, in some cases, litigation continues until the child turns 18 or 19.”

Wiener says that these kind of cases are ripe for abuse, especially if one party has representation and the other does not.

“Our nonprofit model is sustainable and scalable, and this gives us more flexibility to help those in need,” Wiener said. “We have an alternative social enterprise model that is working well for this area of the law.”

Bridge to Justice has been leveling the playing field for poor and middle class families in Boulder and across the Front Range for four years now, but hopes this model can spread across the nation.

Click here to see if you qualify for services.

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Read about the justice gap and access to justice: