Many people might view the courts and the legal system as something distant that has little effect on our personal lives. And that may be true—until you need it. And then when you need it, you realize just how difficult it can be to navigate and just how out of reach justice can feel.
My recent experience with the civil justice system—even pre-COVID-19—has been frustrating, to say the least. When it rains, it pours: I’ve had four active legal issues arise seemingly all at once. At the outset, all of them seemed fairly routine and like things everyone might need help with at some point. But getting help has not been easy. I’ve encountered roadblocks at every turn. Through it all, the experience has given me a more personal perspective on the importance of our work at IAALS and helping the real users of our system—like me—have better and more efficient access to justice.
Everything started when my father passed away in Philadelphia last December. When the dust had settled a bit, I began exploring how to close his estate. Like most people, I first turned to Google. A quick search informed me that I would need to set up a small estate in Philadelphia; however, when I used the court website, it was not clear which division I should contact. After a few phone calls, I finally found a helpful (and live) person at the court, who explained that a small estate does not even exist in Philadelphia—although Legal Zoom, Nolo, and others said differently. She walked me through the state’s actual process, but most importantly I found out that even though I live in Denver, I would have to appear in-person to take the next steps. This seemed inconvenient and avoidable, but doable. I planned on making my appearance while in town for my father’s memorial service in April—and then COVID-19 hit. The service was postponed, as was my court appearance. Until the court resumes more business as usual, I am now in a holding pattern, unable to even set up my father’s estate let alone to settle his affairs.
At the same time, I was also dealing with landlord/tenant issues. My tenant was running behind on rent, and while we’ve tried to cut them some slack—particularly as the pandemic took hold—I needed help figuring out our options. Could we pursue an eviction? What would that entail? There was a lot of conflicting information, and then as the COVID-19 crisis strengthened, it also raised a moral question: was an eviction or not renewing their lease the right thing to do? The state of Colorado helped answer that question for us when it issued a stay of eviction during the crisis. Right now, we can’t do anything beyond hope our tenant continues to pay each month. So far—and luckily—they have.
I was also recently involved in a post-divorce matter, and the cost of retaining an attorney to handle a straightforward matter is unbelievably steep. The initial estimate has almost doubled in price. In addition my motion is in limbo and we must wait for the courts to resume hearing non-emergency issues. And even then, I was advised that the court will most likely push this issue to private arbitration in hopes that we can settle.
The final issue is, thankfully, a happy one—I needed a marriage license. The county court initially allowed us to complete an online application with instructions to appear in-person after the courts are back at full capacity, to finalize and pick up the actual certificate. Luckily, the county just updated their process allowing for a mail-in application service. I included copies of our driver’s licenses with the application, and within a week received a marriage license in the mail in plenty of time for our ceremony.
While my family is healthy and has not suffered any loss due to COVID-19, it is still difficult to navigate these various states of legal limbo—and I can only imagine the countless others who are facing similar situations with fewer resources or less experience. Yet, in the last 6–8 weeks, the courts have been forced to adapt in ways many of us never expected, and I can see positive changes on the horizon. While I’ve been able to resolve some of my legal issues remotely (such as obtaining a marriage license), others may still be further off until courts provide additional services not requiring in-person appearances. I can’t help but think of how solutions such as online filing and remote hearings—solutions we study, advocate for, and help others implement everyday here at IAALS—could be easily utilized in the situations I’ve experienced. Doing so would resolve my issues (and those of so many others) as well as free up bandwidth for other, more complex cases facing our justice system. I truly hope the courts continue to innovate and make the system even easier to navigate.