CHEYENNE — The new hotline for low-income people seeking legal aid is getting pretty warm.
About 150 people a day are calling with legal problems, said Ray Macchia, executive director of Legal Aid of Wyoming.
If the callers meet the income guidelines, they can speak that day to an attorney about their civil legal issues, he said.
Macchia’s federally funded organization runs the hotline, which is financed by a grant from the Wyoming Center for Legal Aid.
The center, a new judicial entity of the Wyoming Supreme Court, was created on April 19, 2011, a year after the Legislature passed the Wyoming Civil Legal Services Act. The center receives money from a $10 filing fee for civil legal actions.
It is Wyoming’s first state-sponsored civil legal aid program. The goal is to attempt to meet the heavy demand from low-income people for legal help in civil actions.
The income limit for people to get help from the center is 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $22,340 per year for a single person and $46,100 for a family of four.
The legal aid center, said executive director and attorney Angie Dorsch, serves as a central hub resource for existing legal aid providers and for new community-centered organizations.
The center’s appropriation from the court filing fees is $1.52 million per year. The center allocated $250,000 for grants between July 1 and now. Those grants have provided assistance to nearly 1,000 people, Dorsch said.
On Thursday the center issued an invitation to nonprofit organizations and pilot programs to submit proposals for the next round of $750,000 in grants to deliver legal services or expand pro bono legal services.
A product of a group of judges and attorneys who sat on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, the center got off to a slow start, which provoked criticism by legal aid attorneys.
“It’s definitely improved,” Macchia said last week.
His nonprofit legal aid law firm has an administrative office in Cheyenne with satellite offices in Casper, Lander and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Each office is staffed by attorneys and support staff.
The new center, he said, is now paying for an office in Rock Springs and is planning to expand to Gillette before the end of the year.
“We finally will be able to reach those people in Rock Springs and Gillette who don’t have attorneys now,” Macchia said. He said it is difficult, though, to find attorneys in those energy-development communities to perform the legal aid for poor people because they have plenty of work already with drunk driving and drug cases for clients with a lot of money.
Macchia credited Dorsch with propelling the center forward. “She’s taken it to the next step,” he said.
Dorsch holds a law degree and a master’s degree in business administration from Texas Tech University. She practiced law with Legal Aid of North West Texas from 2005 until she joined the Wyoming Center for Legal Aid in August.
Dorsch said Wyoming has a similar rural nature to her service area in Texas, which included the entire Texas Panhandle. The legal aid staff in Texas, she said, had to drive nearly three hours to a courthouse. Because of the distances they had a lot of phone consultations and rural clinics to reach the people in need of legal help.
Dorsch said the Rock Springs legal aid office will be housed in the Sweetwater County Justice Center, which will save the state center overhead costs.
The center also continues to fund four grantees, including Legal Aid of Wyoming for the hotline and one full-time and one part-time attorney to answer the hotline; a second attorney for the domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Coalition in Laramie; the Teton County Access to Justice Center in Jackson; and the Wyoming Children’s Law Center in Cheyenne.
The center also has separate programs, such as the website to provide a lot of information for people who are trying to find their way through the court system on their own.
“There never will be enough funding or attorneys to service every client, and that’s why we’re trying to provide these other resources like the Web site,” Dorsch said.
One project, for example, is to automate the forms in divorce packets like Turbo Tax does to help the user through the many pages of questions.
The modification of the custody packet is the next to be automated. Automation of these forms is very complicated and takes a long time, she said.