Trouble is expensive – whether it’s car trouble, health trouble, or legal trouble, it’s going to cost you. Knowing how expensive it is, and knowing how little you have in the bank for such emergencies, makes most reasonable people want to hide under the blankets and hope it goes away. Most of the time, the trouble doesn’t go away – it usually gets worse. It can be a toothache, a funny rattle under the hood, or process server handing you papers; you know it’s going to be an expensive problem.
The median hourly rate for an attorney in Arizona is $255 per hour. Just knowing this is enough to discourage a lot of people from even picking up the phone for a free consultation. And then there is the advance deposit, which could be more than a year’s worth of discretionary income. Some matters can be dealt with using a contingency fee arrangement (where the payment is made only after the case is resolved), but this is only available in some areas of law. Family law and criminal matters cannot be paid for on contingency. If you do make it through the consult, the payment options may leave you feeling that legal help is out of your range. You do have options – maybe more than you think.
If you are indigent, living below the poverty line, then there are legal aid organizations that can help you. But these groups rely on state funding, and are seeing their budgets reduced every year – which makes it hard to qualify if you are only *somewhat* desperate. But what about people who are working, and just aren’t making that much money? Well, since wages have been stagnant for my entire adult life, this is a common situation. You have different options, depending on where you are on the income scale.
The Working Poor – those people who are not homeless, but make under 250% of the federal poverty guidelines, can qualify for the Modest Means project. 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.
After the hour consult, the attorney may offer to take on your case. If the attorney makes this offer, the representation will continue at the modest means rate ($75/hr, here in Arizona). Not every lawyer will make the offer, but there’s no harm in asking. At the very least, you can ask for another 1-hour consult later on.
Modest Means is just one way that your local state bar and legal education organization are trying to bring good legal counsel within reach of working families. And you may be surprised by the caliber of professional you are getting for this low price. Many experienced lawyers are a part of Modest Means – it’s a way to give back and to promote better access to the law.
If you don’t qualify for Modest Means, or if your state doesn’t have such a program, what do you do? There are still ways to get legal assistance in solving your problems – and dealing with trouble is a better plan than hiding under the covers. More strategies for getting good advice for less will continue in the next post.
-Trail Potter, Esq.
2015 Federal Poverty Guidelines: http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/15poverty.cfm
Arizona Modest Means Project: http://www.azflse.org/modestmeans/
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.