SHERIDAN — Sheridan residents can receive free legal information every first and third Thursday of the month through Equal Justice Wyoming’s Volunteer Reference Program.
Equal Justice Wyoming staff attorney and pro bono program coordinator Liz Hutchinson said the program is for pro se litigants with questions in civil legal cases such as divorce, custody modification, landlord-tenant cases and bankruptcy.
No appointment is needed. A volunteer attorney will be at the Sheridan County Courthouse from 2-4 p.m and it’s first come, first served. The next session is June 15.
Hutchinson said the program rolled out in Sheridan last month and has volunteer attorneys scheduled through September. She said it started in Cheyenne in March 2016, and its success there led to the introduction of the program in Casper and then this year to Laramie, Rawlins and Sheridan.
Yonkee and Toner associate attorney Christopher Sherwood is one local volunteer and the Sheridan point person for the program.
Sherwood said those interested in using the program can get assistance navigating forms, but there’s a fine line between information and advice. He said attorneys will help with what can be filled out on the forms, not what should be filled out.
“It’s not the provision of legal advice; it’s not attorney-client representation, it’s…legal information,” Sherwood said.
Sherwood, who has not yet volunteered with the Reference Program but plans to, has volunteered his time and expertise on his own and with other legal programs like Equal Justice Wyoming’s pro bono nights.
He said the Rules of Professional Conduct in Wyoming provides that attorneys aspire to give a certain amount of legal services per year. Both Sherwood and Hutchinson said they’ve found it easy to find volunteers in Sheridan.
“People were very willing to sign up,” Sherwood said.
Hutchinson said the program was created to fill a gap in justice that isn’t just a problem in Wyoming, but across the U.S. She said while many think of popular crime TV show characters reciting the Miranda warnings, saying that an attorney will be appointed to those who cannot afford one, this only applies to criminal cases.
“In any civil matter no one has a constitutional right to representation,” Hutchinson said. “So as a result of that there’s a gap in access to justice.”
She said while this program, organizations like Legal Aid of Wyoming and other pro bono work helps, it’s not enough. She said nationwide there’s about one legal aid attorney for every 7,500 people who qualify for services, so even if every attorney in the state took on a pro bono case, there’d still be a gap.
Sherwood said he got involved with Equal Justice Wyoming because he thinks it’s important to be a leader and resource in the community and to assist with the special knowledge and skill he’s acquired as an attorney to those who might not have the financial resources to obtain it.
He said unlike business litigation, which often falls on people who have money to hire representation and pursue that type of matter, civil cases fall on people across all income levels. Supplying information, he said, makes the system fair.
“If certain individuals don’t have access to (legal information), do we really have a justice system that is accessible and fair to all? I don’t think so,” Sherwood said, explaining it’s important to make it as accessible as possible. “Or else the perception is it’s only accessible to those who can afford it, and that’s not the concept the system is based on.”