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Access to Justice – What about the 80%?

Are you part of the 80%? You make too much income to qualify for free legal aid but not nearly enough to afford a high priced attorney. If this describes you, then welcome, you are part of the vast majority who need what we in the legal community calls, “Access to Justice”. Full length of young men and women holding cellphone

Modest Means

Modest Means isn’t in every state, but it’s a widely available resource. If your income qualifies (that’s an annual income of $60,624 for a family of four), you can get a low price, one-hour consult with an attorney practicing in the area you need. In Arizona, that one hour costs only $75. If you are prepared, have done your research, and have your questions ready, you can get a lot out of an hour with an attorney. The consult is usually done at the lawyers office, so you are just like any other client, getting that same level of counsel for your troubles. Many experienced lawyers are a part of Modest Means – it’s a way to give back and to promote better access to the law.

Unbundled services (aka Limited Scope)

To save some money (if you have the time to devote to it), you can take on some of these jobs, and reserve the attorney work for the things you cannot do. If your attorney is open to an unbundled services arrangement, be realistic about what you can handle, and what you need the attorney to do. If you are going to use the lawyer to consult with as you prepare to represent yourself, do the homework and be prepared to use the consulting time well. If you want to do the pre-trial work yourself, be careful, you can lose a case before you ever see a trial if you don’t meet all the deadlines. Litigation is complex, but with guidance, you can take on some of the tasks, and save a lot of money.

Flat fee services

There are legal services that it makes sense to offer a flat fee. Simple wills, default divorce, Chapter 7 bankruptcy, contract review, and the ever effective Scary Lawyer Letter. Each of these services are usually a one-time shot or on an as-needed basis. Remember that flat fee services are only available in situations where there is a clear end point. Court conflicts can go on as long as the other side wants to fight.

Sliding scale hourly rate

There are many reasons why an attorney will take less than their standard hourly rate on a case. Maybe your legal issue is something they are passionate about. Or maybe your case holds a particular interest. Sometimes an attorney will discount your rate because you are a referral from a previous client. The possibilities are endless but you will never know that if you don’t ask. Just because an attorney quotes a standard hourly rate, it doesn’t mean that is the last word on the matter. Attorneys are people too.

I believe in Access to Justice and serve the 80%. Contact PotterLawAZ.com “We’ll get you through it.”

DANGER! False Reporting to DCS

Before I began a sole practice in earnest, I worked a contract for the Arizona Dept. of Child Safety – more often known by their former letters: CPS. It’s close to the IRS for most maligned state agency (although the National Security Agency is trying), and like the IRS, it’s a necessity. I still don’t know the inner workings of the tax collectors, but my 9 months inside DCS gave me an insight to how the agency works, and the people who do a very hard and often thankless job. I’ve also had a view of the failings and flaws in their work. Now that my work there is done, I want to address a rare but dangerous problem: false reporting.

DCS exists to protect children from dangerous environments created directly by, or due to the neglect of, the parents or guardians of the child. This power to take a child away from the parents is in constant tension with the parents rights over and to their own child. No one is happy to have a government official take away anything of theirs, but to take away a child leaves parents scared and desperate. Often, these are temporary custody situations, where the child is placed with a relative guardian while the danger is assessed, and often returned to the parents. Many times, this danger is from drugs, and DCS provides rehab, counseling, and resources for parents who need help.

Let me assure you – there are very dangerous situations for children in the city of Phoenix, and there are parents whose behavior would terrify you. The people inside DCS all know how bad it can be – and whenever a child dies while under DCS investigation, every single employee of the agency is sent an email of what happened. It’s a constant reminder of what is at stake. Yet with so much riding on this, DCS budgets are always on the chopping block – case managers and parent aids are stretched thin and over-worked.  Our new governor, Doug Ducey, has promised to cut the budgets further, leaving more children in danger, and fewer investigators to work on cases.

Although it is rare, sometimes these investigations are triggered by one of the parents against the other parent, during or after divorce, without a legitimate basis. The intent is often to use a DCS case to influence a custody outcome in family court – to move the ball closer to the goal. Sometimes this is done after a divorce, as part of a strategy to petition the court for a change in custody – and other times it’s done while a divorce is pending.

I’ve spent time preparing court documents in these cases, and it doesn’t work. A report can trigger an investigation, but the process will uncover a false report over substantial danger to a child. This discovery will be reported to the judge and any court appointed advisors in the family law case – in other words, it’s going to cause a lot of pain, expense, trauma for the entire family, and will mostly likely backfire. Filing a false report with DCS is a Class 1 misdemeanor and is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-707, 13-802.) I’ve seen this happen.

The greater tragedy is that each false report takes attention away from real danger to children in frightening circumstances. As resources are stretched thin, the time it takes to uncover a false report drains the time and budget that should be used on cases where there is an ongoing danger to the child’s physical or emotional well being. DCS is there for the children of this state, not to be a used as a tool for parents working out their anger. Additionally, a DCS investigation won’t just stop once it’s been started, so the children will also be dealing with investigations, examinations, case workers asking them a lot of questions, and you ultimately run the risk of having the child removed from both parents, and placed into foster care.

If you are in a divorce, or have an existing custody agreement, and you have problems with the other parent – how they live or who they live with – there are other options. Mediation is a way parents can work through problems without court involvement. Private mediators can find resolutions for a lower cost than court involvement, and they can do it faster – which saves in the emotional costs to you and the children. Look into mediation before doing something you may regret. Think twice before filing a false report with DCS.

REMINDER: Mediators are NOT certified in Arizona – so ask about your mediator’s background and training. Are they knowledgeable in child issues? Are they a licensed attorney? Do they have a behavioral health background? Some conflicts are more about legal issues, and some are more about the psychology of the parents – so choose the right mediator for the problem. I am a Texas certified mediator with a high resolution rate in both civil and family matters. Contact the Potter Law Firm, we can help.

-Trail T. Potter, Esq.