Stories from Inside the Courts: Penny Wagner

Penny WagnerThe coronavirus pandemic has been the ultimate disrupter for state courts, and many of those who have been affected the most are those who can’t afford lawyers. Penny Wagner is the coordinator of Colorado Courts’ Self-Help Centers, which helps pro se litigants statewide get access to services. The program, which the Colorado Judicial Branch created in 2013, is commonly known as Sherlock.

“I was an analyst in the SCA’s office when they needed someone to start the program, and I volunteered. The people who make up the Sherlock program need to have court experience of some kind. Some courts require they be attorneys; some don’t. They receive specific training from mentors and from me. They need to be proficient in every case type we have, except for criminal.

“User needs haven’t changed… The top three are domestic, including divorce and child support, cases involving money, such as evictions, and probate issues. Right now, we’re anticipating a lot of people will lose their homes, so we’re focusing on evictions and issues that come as a result of evictions.

“The pandemic certainly has changed the way we do our work. Our people mostly work from home now. They need to have a laptop with a secure connection to access court information. A lot of courts are allowing filings by email, and we’re rolling out pro se e-filing and doing a pilot project. Filings are down because courts have been closed for a lot of the civil processes.

“We’re helping folks remotely as much as possible. Our family court facilitators are using Webex, and that may become the new norm. We’re also thinking of transitioning some services to different videoconferencing platforms. Community outreach remains a big part of what we do, making connections, for example, with libraries and other institutions that have public computers with printers. Most of our courts are holding “ask-an-attorney” clinics that give people access to attorneys.”