Making a difference:

Organization provides legal advice, services to low-income residents

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Often times, a little bit of legal advice or assistance can make a large difference in someone's life.

While legal costs may be beyond the grasp for many on tight budgets, the Northwest Colorado Legal Services has been helping to fill in that gap in the area since 1999.

It represents just one agency that receives funding from United Way dollars.

Some may be familiar with the Northwest Colorado Legal Services through its toll-free 1-800 line or its once monthly free legal session. The opportunity affords those needing legal advice about 15 to 20 minutes with a lawyer without charge.

"It surprises me that more people don't take advantage of it," said Sherri Ferree, a paralegal and coordinator stationed in Hayden. The local chapter covers residents of Moffat, Routt, Grand, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties.

Attendance for the event held every second Thursday of the month is an ideal opportunity for those wanting a few minutes face time with a lawyer who may not otherwise be able to afford the service. In Routt and Moffat counties, the services offered through the Northwest Colorado Legal Services and its "Ask a Lawyer Night" have aided 805 people.

More than 2,600 people have been aided in the group's 11 county region in Colorado.

Last year's United Way donation of $10,000 from Moffat County residents went a long way to supporting those in need of the free legal help, Ferree said.

"It does make a very big difference in what we do. Without these funds there's no way we could help the people we do," she said. "So many times family law makes a huge difference in somebody's life."

Usually the agency receives cases of domestic violence abuse where one parent is trying to gain custody of children. One poignant case, Ferree recalled, revolved around an elderly woman who was taken advantage of financially by a family member. With the help of Northwest Colorado Legal Services, the woman received the money that was owed her.

"For a minimal $100 to $200 investment, she got her money back," Ferree said. "What it did for her was amazing. It made all the difference."

Attorneys working for the Northwest Colorado Legal Services accept a highly reduced rate of pay when taking on local cases. Lawyers accustomed to earning about 150 an hour accept local cases for fees of less than $50 an hour. The group receives assistance from 42 attorneys a year in the state's five county region.

In 2002, attorneys around the state donated 2,514 hours of time and helped 191 clients.

Northwest Colorado Legal Services is funded 50 percent through the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver. The other 50 percent is garnered through donations and some are received from Routt and Moffat County United Way dollars.

Last year's Northwest Colorado Legal Services budget for both counties reached $82,000 Ferree said.

Because of funding through United Way, the agency can take on more clients.

"It's wonderful," Ferree said. "A lot of that funding goes directly toward attorney resources. It's hard to say directly how the funds help us but if we didn't get them we wouldn't be able to help so many people."

In the past five years, more than 13,000 people have contacted the Northwest Colorado Legal Assistance Project for help, the agency said.

More than 1,000 have received attorney assistance from the approximately 120 local volunteer attorneys and more than 13,500 have been assisted by the agency's toll-free telephone number. On average over the past five years, for every federal dollar spent by the Northwest Colorado Legal Assistance Project, $2.34 in attorney time was contributed by a volunteer attorney.

"There are so many family law cases that we can do that may make a major difference in someone's life," Ferree said.

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