Jul 22, 2015

State providing more legal help to Cody area victims of abuse

A state organization is looking to set up a kind of law office in Cody to help victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking.

With the help of the state government, the  Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is working to bring in an attorney to provide civil legal services for victims who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

“There is a very big need in Cody and the Big Horn Basin area,” Angie Dorsch recently told Park County commissioners.

Dorsch is the executive director of Equal Justice Wyoming, a branch of the Wyoming Supreme Court that's building up a statewide network of legal services for people with lower incomes.

“This is really the last place that we're lacking a full-time attorney to really serve the needs of the public,” Dorsch said last month.

The Cody office, when it's set up by the non-profit Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, will focus solely on victims of sexual and domestic violence, she said.

Equal Justice Wyoming has provided the coalition with money to help staff and equip the office, but they've run into some trouble finding a location to set up shop.

“There is a very big need in Cody and the Big Horn Basin area,” said Angie Dorsch of Equal Justice Wyoming.

County commissioners initially agreed to provide a rent-free space inside the Park County Complex — a roughly 9.5- by 9.5-foot former mailroom that had been unused. However, Marathon Oil Company officials — first offered the space some seven months earlier — recently decided they want it, Commission Chairman Joe Tilden said last week.

“They do have first right of refusal on that ... so we're going to have to give it to them,” Tilden said, later apologizing to Dorsch.

Commissioners offered a couple other spots for the new legal office: in the basement of the county courthouse, the basement of the former Cody jail or at the Park County Annex in Powell. However, those spots might not offer the weekend and off-hours access that the coalition's attorney would need.

Now Equal Justice Wyoming and the coalition against domestic violence are looking for a new spot.

“We’re committed to having an attorney in Cody, so I know that we’ll make that happen,” Dorsch said in an interview.

Low-income locals can already call the Legal Aid of Wyoming's free hotline (1-877-432-9955) for help. The service — which is partially funded by Equal Justice Wyoming — assisted nearly 200 Big Horn Basin residents over the past year, Dorsch said. Half came from Cody and other parts of Park County.

Only people with incomes at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines (around $23,500 for an individual) are eligible. The new legal services are also only for civil matters (lower-income criminal defendants have long been provided attorneys for free) and they cannot be used for personal injury cases, such as claims of medical malpractice.

Dorsch estimated that 90 percent of the cases handled by Equal Justice Wyoming’s partners involve family, consumer or housing laws.

“The majority of our cases are really just to help people find stability,” she said.

As for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault's planned work in Cody, Dorsch said it might include helping victims with divorce or child custody issues or perhaps helping them get out of leases or business arrangements that are tied to their abuser.

“The majority of our cases are really just to help people find stability,” said Angie Dorsch.

Beyond helping to hire attorneys around the state, Equal Justice Wyoming is also working to make more self-help materials available for people who are handling their own legal affairs. It’s also continuing to encourage Wyoming attorneys to take on more cases pro bono.

Dorsch said that not only do the services help the people in need, getting them professional legal help eases the burden on the judges and court clerks.

Equal Justice Wyoming’s efforts are funded by a $10 fee attached to the civil cases filed in Wyoming's courts.

For more information — including to access some of the self-help materials — visit www.legalhelpwy.org.

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