Is access to legal help equitable in Central Oregon?

Deschutes County Circuit Court, library and attorneys to examine resources

By Claire Withycombe / The Bulletin

If you go

What: Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting

When: 3:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Deschutes Services Building, 1300 NW Wall St.

A collaboration between Deschutes County Circuit Court, the Deschutes Public Library System and local attorneys will examine ways to broaden access to legal resources.

The organizational charter of the new Access to Justice Committee will be discussed at a meeting Tuesday of Deschutes County’s Public Safety Coordinating Council.

Attorneys don’t come cheap, but hiring one can be burdensome for people whose income is above the upper limit to qualify for state Legal Aid services, too.

Courts appoint attorneys for indigent criminal defendants — but no such right to counsel exists for civil law matters, although certain people can qualify for Legal Aid assistance in some civil cases.

But if people earning income above the Legal Aid threshold face a civil matter such as eviction, for example, legal expertise comes at a cost.

The Oregon State Bar has a modest means program that matches lawyers with clients who can’t afford the full cost of legal services, so they can pay a reduced fee for a lawyer’s help.

That program maintains information by county on what type of legal help is requested throughout the state.

Cara Ponzini, the president of the Deschutes County Bar Association, said Thursday the committee will review data like that to evaluate needs for legal services in the county.

Many family law cases in the circuit court are filed pro se, or without the aid of an attorney, she added.

Possible improvements include making eCourts, the state’s electronic court records system, available in library branches or stationing a volunteer lawyer at a public library for several hours a week to provide guidance on legal topics.

The formation of the Access to Justice Committee was prompted in part by the law library’s recent move to the Deschutes Public Library. Oregon counties are required to maintain law libraries under state statute, and the law library — essentially, a collection of legal reference books — is now housed at the public library under a contract with the county.

Committee members are not sure what the panel will address or what programs it may recommend or implement, partly because they have yet to identify the needs of people in the county. The committee, according to its charter, will also submit an annual report to the court’s presiding judge and the board of the Deschutes County Bar Association.

The committee will meet four times a year. Not all of the seven committee members have been recruited yet, according to Deschutes County Trial Court Administrator Jeff Hall.

The committee will include a representative from the court, the library, Legal Aid and local government, as well as a citizen member and two representatives from the Deschutes County Bar Association.

­— Reporter: 541-383-0376,

cwithycombe@bendbulletin.com

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